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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> April 2010

Charlie Crist's Foolish Move

What the hell is Charlie Crist doing?

This is insane. Two huge problems.

One, Independents don't win elections to the US Senate in three-way contests. Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman are in office because one party or the other implicitly backed them. By my count, the last candidate to win election to the Senate as an Independent (other than Sanders and Lieberman) was Harry Byrd of Virginia. He won in 1976 because the Republicans did not run a candidate. This is not coincidental; true third party candidacies almost never work:

-When it comes to Congress, there's no such thing as an "Independent." Senators and Representatives inevitably caucus with one side or the other because the party leaders dispense committee assignments. This means that Independents are only really independent when they're campaigning, not legislating.

-Voters vote their partisanship, and most voters are partisan. The 2008 exit poll found that the Florida electorate was 37% Democrat, 34% Republican, and 29% Independent. I'd note that the exit polls don't ask Independents how they lean. Gallup asks that question, and that's why they currently find that only 12% of Americans are "pure" Independents.

-Voters are strategic. Remember the New Jersey governor's race? Independent Christopher Daggett was polling at 10%, but only got 5.8% on Election Day. There's a reason for that. American elections are winner take all, which makes it very difficult for third parties to thrive. Once voters catch wind that a vote for a third party candidate is a waste, they'll bail on that candidate. This suggests that Crist is going to have to "defeat" either Marco Rubio or Kendrick Meek prior to Election Day. Now, how do you suppose he's going to do that? He hasn't been able to defeat Rubio yet. That means he will have to nullify Meek. I'm skeptical he'll be able to do that. As an African American, Meek can expect strong support from the roughly 14% of the electorate that is black. That's one big problem. Another big problem is that Crist will first have to get the Democratic Party establishment to get behind him, and the White House is refusing to take his calls. With good reason. They're banking that Crist will siphon off just enough votes from Rubio to elect Meek. And anyway, with Roland Burris leaving the upper chamber next year, there might not be a single African American Senator in the 112th Congress. Can the Democratic establishment really turn its back on Meek - for Charlie Crist of all people? No way!

-Partisanship is important on Election Day. A party label carries with it a wealth of information that helps poorly-informed voters select the correct candidate. Crist has shed his Republican label, so now nobody knows what he will do in the Senate. How is that going to help inform voters about him? If Crist was more personable, he could run by saying, "Trust me to do what's right!" But he doesn't have that kind of personal appeal.

Second, it would be hard to come up with a strategy that goes against the zeitgeist as much as Crist's plan to run as an Independent. Congressional job approval is getting so low that only members of Congress and their staff approve of the job the legislature is doing. And why? Ask people you know in life and they'll complain about politicians who are only out for themselves, who aren't looking out for the interests of the people. And now here comes good old Charlie Crist, who just a few weeks ago swore off an Independent run. This is a dishonest and nakedly self-interested move, and voters are fed up with this kind of behavior. The only compelling motivation that Charlie Crist has to run as an Independent is so that Charlie Crist can stay in elective office. That is not good enough in a year like 2010. Crist should take a lesson from Arlen Specter, a 30-year veteran of Pennsylvania statewide politics who pulled a similar stunt. He isn't polling above 43% in the RCP average. That's the kind of year this is.

I know why Crist is doing this. He's not on the ballot for governor this year, and he doesn't want to lose his seat at the table. Yet this is not going to work. And it will end his political career for good. The alternative would be to bow out gracefully, heartily endorse Marco Rubio, campaign like the dickens for him in the fall, and wait for the next opening in Florida politics. Instead, he is about to piss off every Republican in the country, and he's not going to win over the affections of the Democrats, who clearly sense an opportunity to get one of their own into the seat.

His political career will be over in just a few short months. What a fool.

-Jay Cost

Predicting the 2010 Midterm Election Results

Everybody wants to know what will happen in November. Here's my take:

I don't really know.

Predicting congressional midterms is a severely problematic task. It's beset with many difficulties, few of which are regularly discussed in popular commentary. Yet I've grown increasingly aware of them in recent years, and I find them to be utterly stultifying.

This article will lay out what I see as the biggest problems in trying to predict what will happen.

First, and most important, there are few observations. Since the end of World War II, there have been only 16 midterm elections. This is a major empirical problem. Expectations for future events must be built on past experiences. That's just common sense. The fewer past experiences you have, the less precise your prediction can be.

Second, congressional midterm elections have a very irregular pattern. The following chart tracks the share of House seats the party of the President has lost since 1946.

Midterm Losses.jpg

More than half of the elections are pretty uneventful. The party of the President has lost 10% or less of its House seats in 9 of the 16 midterms. That would be akin to Democratic losses of 26 or fewer seats this November, which I think most people would identify as a Republican underperformance.

So, if we think that the Republicans are going to make big gains, and we want to know how big - we only have about seven helpful elections.

But take a closer look at those seven elections. They are 1946, 1958, 1966, 1974, 1982, 1994, and 2006. This is a problematic list, and it points to the third problem. Election results necessarily depend on the social, economic, and political context of the day. As the context changes, so also will the results. Many contextual changes in American politics might have had a systematic influence on House elections. Here are eight notable possibilities:

-The party coalitions have flipped. In 1946, the Republicans were a Northern-based party and the Democrats a Southern-based one. Today, it is exactly the opposite.

-In 1946, about 12% of voting-age blacks were registered to vote. By 1970, that number had climbed to 67%. In response, politicians have put black voters in minority-majority congressional districts, which did not exist for the early elections.

- Salient issues have changed completely. Dominant issues in 1946 included labor union strikes and the emerging Soviet threat. How relevant can that be for understanding 2010?

-The contemporary congressional campaign is totally different. Nowadays, we have candidate-centered contests dominated by consultants, television advertisements, and the need to raise at least $1 million. This is a relatively recent phenomenon.

-There has been increasing party polarization. In the 1950s through 1970s, scholars thought the electorate was in the midst of a "dealignment." For example, the electorate of the past was much more likely to split its vote between the parties than the electorate of today. Also, congressional parties of the past were substantially more moderate than the contemporary ones.

-Today, gerrymandering is the one true political science. Politicians use computer-generated models to go precinct-by-precinct to find the right mix of voters to help their party win as many districts as possible. Such precision did not exist in the 1940s.

-For decades after the Great Depression, the Roosevelt coalition was broad enough that the Republicans generally could not win a House majority, even in good years. In particular, it was the "Solid South" that kept the Republicans at a ceiling of about 190 seats. This phenomenon lasted until the 1990s when the Republicans finally achieved parity south of the Mason-Dixon Line. For the first time since Reconstruction, both parties are now truly able to compete in every region of the country.

-It was not until the Warren Court decisions of the 1960s that states had to draw congressional districts according to the maxim of "one man, one vote."

Congressional elections depend not just on the national vote, but how that vote is distributed across the 435 congressional districts. Each of these eight factors could have influenced the vote or its distribution, and several could have influenced both. So, color me skeptical of any model (statistical or otherwise) that uses elections like 1946, 1958 or 1966 to predict the outcome in 2010. There are just too many changes in context for those elections to be terribly useful.

As if all this is not enough, there's a fourth problem. Three of the four recent big midterm elections - 1974, 1982, and 1994 - are extraordinary:

-The midterm of 1974 is far too unique to be of much use. Richard Nixon had resigned in August of that year and Gerald Ford had pardoned him in September. Any attempts to compare 1974 to 2010 are thus highly problematic.

-The midterm of 1982 saw the Republicans lose about 13% of their House caucus. At the time analysts were surprised; they expected the GOP to lose much more. Ronald Reagan's net job approval rating was at -6% by Election Day. The unemployment rate was at 10.8%. The Republicans had as many seats in 1982 as they did in 1974, yet they lost half as many in the midterm.

-The midterm of 1994 was surprising for opposite reasons. Bill Clinton's net job approval was at +1% on Election Day. By November, the unemployment rate had fallen to 5.6%, it's lowest point in more than four years. Virtually nobody expected a Republican takeover of Congress, let alone a takeover with so many seats to spare.

The 1994 midterm ended up scrambling most of the models at the time. Predictions were actually quite wide of the mark. A few years later, John Coleman of the University of Wisconsin would take to the pages of the Journal of Politics to ask if Republicans enjoyed some kind of systematic advantage in midterm elections. He wrote:

Few observers expected the massive Democratic defeat in the 1994 House election. In 1982 observers were surprised by how few seats the Republicans lost. These two examples suggest the possibility of a wider phenomenon: Republicans are relatively advantaged in midterm elections... These contrasting party fates may be related to different expectations voters bring to Republican and Democratic presidencies. Bringing party into midterm forecasting shows that the 54 seats lost in 1994 were not surprising for the Democrats, but under similar conditions the Republicans would lose only about 20 seats.

Coleman's argument has theoretical merit, but it runs into the same data problem as we've been discussing: too few observations for really solid testing. What I find most interesting about this assertion is that, after the waves of 1974, 1982, and 1994, electoral prognosticators were not sharpening their models, but revisiting core assumptions!

To summarize, here is where we are. In the last sixty years there have been only a handful of midterm elections, and even fewer can be considered waves. The midterms before the 1970s were so different in terms of context it's hard to derive much useful information from them. The midterm of 1974 was the product of a singular event in American history. The midterms of 1982 and 1994 caught everybody off guard. And the midterm of 2006 might not be relevant because the Republicans are different than the Democrats.

So, I don't really know what will happen. Are the Democrats going to lose seats in November? Almost certainly. Are they going to lose "a lot" of seats? Probably - the macro trends generally point in that direction, and we do know enough to get an approximate sense of how things will play out. Is it going to be seat losses in the 20-40 seat range, 40-60 range, or 60+ range? Nobody knows yet.

I understand that people want to see into the future. Lord knows I do. Analysts are already working hard to satisfy this demand by proffering all sorts of arguments. Their assertions are useful - but only to a point. I've come to believe that congressional elections are a poorly understood phenomenon, and I would encourage you to be a cautious consumer of predictive punditry.

-Jay Cost

The GOP's 2012 Problem?

I think Barack Obama is going to be tough to beat in 2012, but for few of the reasons that Ed Kilgore lists in this column.

For starters, how's about this:

[S]mart Democrats understand that one of their chief liabilities right now figures to be an asset in 2012: the shape of the electorate. Turnout in midterm elections invariably skews toward older and whiter voters. Yet Obama's 2008 performance varied inversely with age categories and also depended on a historic ethnic-minority turnout that isn't about to be repeated in a midterm election.

Maybe, but context is important. The Baby Boomers split their vote between Nixon and McGovern in 1972. Eight years later, they were tilted toward Reagan. By 1988 they supported the seriously unhip George Herbert Walker Bush. The lesson? Don't count younger voters as a secure part of your coalition. They're young. Their circumstances and their perspectives can change. And so also can their partisanship.

I'd note that Gallup right now has Obama at 58% among adults aged 18-29. In 2008, he won 66% of voters in that age group.

Kilgore continues:

The 2012 electorate...should look more like that of 2008. Not content with their midterm advantage, Republicans have done a lot to brand themselves as the party of angry old white people: the GOP's conspicuous identification with the Tea Party movement, and the campaign to mobilize Medicare beneficiaries against healthcare reform are two examples.

Because white people are the only ones who receive Medicare? Because the Democrats didn't mobilize Medicare beneficiaries in 1996?

Let's get something straight: if Republicans win 60% of the white vote in 2012, they stand a great shot at winning the White House. Here's the math:

-In 2008, McCain won 55% of whites, who accounted for 74% of all voters.

-If the Republican nominee wins 60% of whites and they again count for 74%, then the GOP's share of the vote will go up by 3.7% if everything else stays the same.

-But these voters will be coming from Obama's side, so Obama's share of the vote will go down by 3.7%.

-That makes for a total swing of 7.4%.

-Obama won the 2008 presidential vote by 7.27%. So, if 5% of white voters shift from Obama to the GOP nominee and everything else stays the same, the GOP would win the popular vote by 0.13%.

So, that's the popular vote. It would probably swing the Electoral College. The Democratic vote is clustered in big states like Illinois, New York, and California that are simply not in play. It would be mathematically possible for the GOP - whose voters are more beneficially distributed across the 50 states - to suffer the same fate as Gore in 2000, but it is pretty unlikely.

Is 60% of the white vote infeasible? Well, right now Gallup has Obama's approval among white adults at 39%.

Oh, and Obama is at 62% approval among Hispanic adults according to Gallup. He won 67% of Hispanic voters in 2008. Such a drop-off would result in about a one point swing in the nationwide popular vote. A GOP popular vote victory of 1% or more would almost certainly tip the Electoral College.

Another thing known to tip the Electoral College? A measly reelect number of 46%.

Of course, I can cite you numbers and statistics to push back on the "emerging Democratic majority" theme until you and I are both totally exhausted. Lord knows I've been doing that for the last year and a half. But I think it's time for us to learn to coexist with this argument - it ain't going nowhere. Its advocates have enough ad hoc addenda they can toss onto it to account for anything at all. Dems are winning? Emerging Democratic majority! Dems are losing? Emerging Democratic majority!

But the last year and a half indicates why coexistence should not become capitulation. This theory has a ton of problems. It's one thing to win a single election. That does not make for a realignment - because "realignment" suggests that some voters switch parties and then they don't switch back. That in turn suggests that the victorious party governs to the satisfaction of the new voters. So far, Obama has failed to do this. Whether Kilgore likes it or not, angry white people were a major factor in Obama's victory in 2008 - and they do not at present appear to be supporting the 44th President. If Obama can't hold them in his coalition, then he's going to lose. Sorry, but the Democrats' long-anticipated demographic eschaton just ain't here yet. George McGovern's grandson might be able to win in a walk by 2050, but it's still just 2010.

When it comes to ad hoc addenda, nothing quite beats the following chestnut. According to Kilgore, the biggest reason the GOP is in trouble in 2012 is because the field right now is just a bunch of retreads:

Republicans, like or not, are probably stuck with the presidential field they now have. And it's not a pretty sight.

Polls now show three Republicans bunched at the front of the pack -- Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin. Romney is almost certainly running, but he failed to make an emotional connection with GOP voters in 2008. And doing so in 2012 will be even tougher, now that Romney is stuck trying to explain to Republicans the difference between Obamacare and the plan Romney imposed on Massachusetts.

This is really something, coming as it does from a Democrat. The last four times Kilgore's party has taken the White House from the GOP - in 1960, 1976, 1992, and 2008 - they did so with somebody who was a dark horse. And these weren't just your standard, run of the mill dark horses like Franklin Pierce or James Garfield or Warren Harding. These dark horses were a Catholic, an African-American, and two moderate Southern governors in the post-McGovern era of the party.

So, the GOP can't find a dark horse? Wasn't McCain just a little dark-horsey? The MSMers in the I-95 Corridor didn't think so circa 2006. They loved McCain, but then again they're not really major players in GOP electoral politics.

Toward the end of the piece, it becomes pretty clear that Kilgore's disregard for the GOP is fogging the lens just a little bit:

Sure, there some dark horses (sic). Tim Pawlenty has some insider support but no discernable rationale for a candidacy -- and a personality that makes Mitch McConnell look charismatic. Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, a conservative favorite, could try to become the first sitting House member to win a presidential nomination since 1896. John Thune's main qualification seems to be that he looks very pretty on television. And then there's Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour -- just in case Republicans want to nominate a former big-time professional lobbyist who also sounds like Foghorn Leghorn...

Yep. Because Hillary Clinton had a "discernable rationale for a candidacy" and Barack Obama's "main qualification" was not that he gave a great speech in 2004. And, as we all know, Southerners with a twang have done horribly in presidential politics in the last 50 years...besides LBJ, Carter, Clinton, and Bush 43.

Two lessons emerge from this piece. One, you can't predict a presidential nomination contest more than two years out. Two, the opposition really can't do it.

Update, 2:45 PM: Ed Kilgore puts up a feisty, enjoyable response to my piece here, suggesting that the goal of his piece was merely to curb Republican enthusiasm about 2012 - and that I, as a well-known thrower of cold water on both parties, could certainly agree to that. Well, yes I can! But Ed has two sets of reasons for tossing his bucket of cold water. One set is strong, the other weak.

Here's the first set, which was basically the focus of his Salon piece:

I made three basic points: (1) the very turnout patterns that will help Republicans in 2010 will likely be reversed in 2012, with the current GOP focus on appealing to older white voters becoming a handicap rather than an advantage; (2) for all the talk of "fresh faces" emerging from the midterms, it is extremely unlikely that any of them will emerge quickly enough to run for president as Republicans in 2012; and (3) the existing Republican presidential field is at least as weak as the 2008 field, and could produce a weak nominee.

I think each of these is very weak. Point (1) deserves extra attention. I agree that demographic patterns will be different in 2010 versus 2008/2012, but whether that is an actual advantage depends on how the Democrats govern. This is something that I think has always been missing from the emerging Democratic majority thesis, which Ed leans on very heavily in his Salon piece. The Democrats have a clunky electoral coalition that they are not handling very well at the moment. It's one thing to promise the Earth, the moon, and the stars above to voters in 2008 when George W. Bush's job approval is at 25% and just about everybody is ready for a change. It's another thing to hold that coalition together through four years of governing. Polling data of adults (and thus including every conceivable presidential election voter) shows that, at this point, they need to make some improvements.

I'd be willing to meet Ed half-way and say that while the 2012 electorate will look better for the Democrats than 2010 electorate, the bigger question - and the whole issue of who should be optimistic or pessimistic - is whether it looks good enough for them.

Moving on to Ed's other points, I think his point (2) sets up a meaningless distinction between "fresh face" and "dark horse." I see people like Daniels, Pawlenty, Thune, and Pence as fresh faces, dark horses, whatever. I don't think the GOP needs somebody to come out of nowhere to save it in 2012 - and anyway, if such a savior emerged, I doubt Ed would think very much of him, either! Also, I think Ed's point (3) is really more of a reflection that, as a Democrat, he doesn't think much of Pawlenty, Thune, and Pence (all of whom I think could be formidable). If Ed wants to offer up an actual argument about why Thune would have limitations, I'd be interested in reading that. But it just rings hollow for him to emphasize the alleged facts that Thune's appeal is superficial (so was Obama's) or that Pawlenty does not have a compelling national interest driving a candidacy (neither did Hillary Clinton!). I say alleged because Thune isn't just superficial - he defeated Daschle in 2002, which was a big deal politically. And Ed is free to dismiss Pawlenty's Sam's Club angle all he wants, but (i) I think the Douthat/Salam thesis is a good one and (ii) doesn't this mean that Pawlenty does have a real reason to run?

Ed then outlines a second set of reasons that is substantially stronger:

That's all totally aside from the facts that the economy could improve by 2012, that the president remains relatively popular, and that Republicans may be unable to offer a credible alternative agenda for the country.

I agree with all of these entirely - and I would add two more big ones. First, historically the most stable governing coalition has strangely enough been divided government. If the GOP wins one or both chambers of Congress in 2010, a vote for Obama could thus become a vote to retain divided government. In that case, advantage Obama. Second, 2011-2012 seems like it will be the time for a major budget deficit showdown. Historically, these are brutal because politicians have to identify voters who will be losers - be it those who pay more in taxes, those who receive fewer benefits, or both. In the 1990s, the Republicans had a less-than-great experience with the politics of deficit reduction. It worked against George H.W. Bush in 1992 and against Bob Dole in 1996. It helped the GOP in the 1994 midterm, but they had no governing role in the 103rd Congress. Additionally, the Republicans could be fighting a budget battle from the relatively weak position of controlling just one chamber of Congress. Republicans should be concerned that they will not win enough seats in 2010 to fix any of the problems the country finds itself in, but just enough to get the blame.

I'll make a prediction for 2012 right now: whichever nominee does a better job of assigning blame for the nation's budget fiasco to the other guy will be the victor of that contest.

Now, Ed... how's that for some cold water!