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By Jay Cost

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Michael Steele Makes the Case for Party Reform

Abraham Lincoln's assassination was a national tragedy, and it was also a partisan calamity of the first degree. The Republicans had transformed themselves into the "Union Party" during the Civil War; to hold together their broad pro-war coalition, they nominated Andrew Johnson - Democrat from Tennessee and the only Senator from the Confederacy not to leave Congress - for vice-president in 1864. With Lincoln gone, Johnson became President; this precipitated a split in the Republican party that eventually wound its way through the party organization. As President, Johnson took control of the Republican National Committee (RNC), and congressional Republicans - the "Radicals" - were worried that he would use it to undermine their position in Congress. Thus was born what we know today as the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) - a partisan organization designed exclusively to help congressional Republicans.

I've been thinking about this anecdote lately because of Michael Steele, as of this writing still the Chairman of the RNC. His tenure has been an unmitigated disaster, and an embarrassment for a Republican party that stands a decent shot of returning to power in Congress come November. Apparently, the RNC is not going to force Steele out of power - it's just too difficult - and instead unhappy Republicans will redirect money to other outlets, like the Republican Governors Association.

So, 2010 is a bit like 1866 in that the Republican party apparatus is disorganized and divided. Although unlike 1866, the disorganization of today is not because of deep divisions within the party on an issue of monumental importance, but because of a man who has managed to capture the chairmanship in an apparent attempt to - as the Daily Show wryly commented last night - run a "ponzi scheme on stupid."

Republicans should be troubled by all this - not simply by the fact that Steele has been able to acquire the power of the chairmanship, but also by the fact that apparently he cannot be gotten rid of.

This raises the question: is it time to reorganize the Republican party?

The national Republican party organizations - the RNC, NRCC, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) - are all old organizations that were created many, many decades ago. In the intervening years, the nature of the electoral campaign has changed, but these organizations remain intact.

Here is how the members of the Republican National Committee are chosen:

RULE NO. 1 Organization of the Republican National Committee

(a) The Republican National Committee shall have the general management of the Republican Party, based upon the rules adopted by the Republican National Convention. The members of the Republican National Committee shall consist of one (1) national committeeman and one (1) national committeewoman from, and the chairman of the state Republican Party of, each state.

(b) For the purposes of this rule and all other rules, "state" or "states" shall be taken to include American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, except in Rule No. 13 and unless the context in which the word "state" or "states" is used clearly makes such inclusion inappropriate...

RULE NO. 2 Method of Election for National Committeeman and National Committeewoman

(a) Where the rules adopted by a state Republican Party provide a method of election of the national committeeman and the national committeewoman, they shall be elected pursuant to such method.

(b) Where the rules adopted by a state Republican Party do not provide a method of election of the national committeeman and the national committeewoman, and where state laws do provide such a method of election, they shall be elected pursuant to such method provided by state laws. (c) Where neither the rules adopted by a state Republican Party nor state laws provide a method of election of the national committeeman and the national committeewoman, the national convention delegation from such state shall elect them.

In other words, it is a federated organization whose membership is largely determined by the state parties. Also, in a nod to the "New Jersey Plan," each state (and remember that includes American Samoa, D.C., Guam, and so on) gets exactly the same number of members, regardless of how populous they are or whether they ever actually vote Republican.

The unrepresentativeness of the Republican organization has been a problem in the past. Teddy Roosevelt was likely the choice of Republican voters nationwide, but he lost the Republican nomination in 1912 to William Howard Taft, who controlled the RNC as well as the Southern delegates. These southern delegates did not represent the interests of voting Republicans in the South because, well, there really weren't any voting Southern Republicans back then! Instead, they were more like the "Rotten Boroughs" of old British Parliaments, loyal to Taft because he as President had secured them patronage.

So how is it that Michael Steele has been able to wreak all this havoc upon a party that won the support of nearly 60 million Americans in 2008? It goes like this: the state Republican parties elected their RNC members, who elected Michael Steele, who has embarrassed his party.

What's wrong with this? For starters, the role of the state parties should be of concern. Picture this: you're a young, idealistic Republican who just moved into a new state. You want to help the cause, so you pick up the phone intent to find a political organization or outlet for which you can volunteer. Do you call your state Republican party? No, didn't think so.

The reality is that the state party organizations used to be powerful entities that dispensed patronage to keep an iron grip on political power. Think Matthew Quay in Pennsylvania or Roscoe Conkling in New York. But the Teddy Roosevelt's of the world got their way, and there is basically no more patronage for these organizations to control, which means that they are merely shells of their former selves. Really, what they do today is help state candidates launder money to exploit the legal loopholes in federal and state campaign finance laws. They are not really open organizations, as Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren envisioned when they created the first modern political party in the 1820s. The Republican base does not participate in them, which means in turn that they do not really represent their interests. Additionally, they are only tangentially related to Republicans in Congress, who - because they have to win primary battles - can at least claim to represent the millions of people who call themselves Republicans. And yet these members of Congress are powerless to do anything about Michael Steele.

So these state parties - even though most Republicans in most states have nothing to do with them - are empowered to elect the RNC. And the RNC has two jobs of significance. The first is to wield the imagery of Republicanism - "the Elephant" - to attract donations, which are then distributed strategically to state parties and candidates, again to exploit campaign finance law loopholes. They are also in charge of putting on the Republican National Convention, although for practical purposes the party's nominee gets to make all the important choices about the speakers, the message, the platform, and so on.

The question I would ask is this: is the organization of the RNC designed for the task of money laundering in a maximally effective way? I would say no. The big problem is the state party organizations, which are anachronistic holdovers from days long gone by. They lack broad popular mandates, in that Republican voters tend not to participate in their activities. They also are not directly involved in setting the national party agenda, which comes out of Congress and the White House. So why should their organization be entrusted with control of the party imagery and the job of raising tens of millions of dollars?

Make no mistake, this organizational structure generates inefficiencies. I noted this recent story with interest:

The RNC is sending staffers to Guam to train party operatives, an RNC spokesperson confirms to Hotline OnCall, in advance of this year's open GOV race. State and local development dir. Shannon Reeves and Director of Political Strategies for New Media George Alafoginis, 2 RNC officials, are in Guam this week as part of Steele's commitment to provide more party resources to U.S. territories, they told the Pacific Daily News. It is Reeves' second trip, after visiting last year. The 2 top staffers will also attend the party's Lincoln Day Dinner at a local resort.

"The visit is a part of party building activities the committee undertakes everyday to ensure the Republican Party is competitive in every state and territory, which is an important priority for Chairman Steele. To do otherwise -- and not make critical investments in our state and local parties -- would be political malpractice," said RNC communications director Doug Heye.

It is the RNC's second foray into Pacific Rim politics. Earlier this year, Hotline OnCall reported Steele had directed $20K to the Northern Mariana Islands for a GOV race, which the GOP lost.

The territories of the Pacific Rim have literally no role to play in United States politics, but they are receiving Republican resources. Why? Because they have votes in the RNC. If John Boehner and Eric Cantor were in charge of directing party dollars, would $20,000 be sent to the Northern Mariana Islands? No, of course not.

The worst part of this setup is that the party feels its negative effects at exactly the worst time: when it is out of power. Steele's unique brand of nonsense would not have been tolerated when George W. Bush was President because the Commander in Chief also becomes the commander of the party. He essentially captures the RNC and integrates it into his own political organization - just as Barack Obama effectively named Tim Kaine, an early supporter, chair of the DNC. But when the party is out of power, a character like Michael Steele has a shot at gaming this inefficient, outdated organization for the purposes of self-promotion.

I think it is time for Republicans to evaluate their organization seriously and carefully. The RNC should not be allowed to be a cause of mischief and embarrassment when the GOP is out of power. I'm not sure what the best setup is, but I do think Republicans need to make a choice about how it is structured in the years when it does not control the White House. They either should work to make their existing organizations more inclusive, so that the tens of millions of self-identified Republicans not only vote for candidates but vote for party leaders. Or, they should entrust it with congressional Republicans (and other elite party stakeholders) for safekeeping until the White House returns to Republican control.

-Jay Cost

America is Not Ungovernable

Recently, some analysts have suggested that the lack of major policy breakthroughs in the last year is due to the fact that America has become ungovernable. Ezra Klein argued that it was time to reform the filibuster because the government cannot function with it intact anymore. Tom Friedman suggested that America's "political instability" was making people abroad nervous. And Michael Cohen of Newsweek blamed "obstructionist Republicans," "spineless Democrats," and an "incoherent public" for the problem.

Nonsense. America is not ungovernable. Her President has simply not been up to the job.

Let's acknowledge that governing the United States of America is an extremely difficult task. Intentionally so. When designing our system, the Founders were faced with a dilemma. How to empower a vigorous government without endangering liberty or true republicanism? On the one hand, George III's government was effective at satisfying the will of the sovereign, but that will had become tyrannical. On the other hand, the Articles of Confederation acknowledged the rights of the states, but so much so that the federal government was incapable of solving basic problems.

The solution the country ultimately settled on had five important features: checks and balances so that the branches would police one another; a large republic so that majority sentiment was fleeting and not intensely felt; a Senate where the states would be equal; enumerated congressional powers to limit the scope of governmental authority; and the Bill of Rights to offer extra protection against the government.

The end result was a government that is powerful, but not infinitely so. Additionally, it is schizophrenic. It can do great things when it is of a single mind - but quite often it is not of one mind. So, to govern, our leaders need to build a broad consensus. When there is no such consensus, the most likely outcome is that the government will do nothing.

The President's two major initiatives - cap-and-trade and health care - have failed because there was not a broad consensus to enact them. Our system is heavily biased against such proposals. That's a good thing.

It's not accurate to blame this on the Republicans. From Arlen Specter's defection to Scott Brown's swearing in, Democrats had total control over the policy-making process. The only recourse the Republicans had was the First Amendment. They used it well, but don't let it be said that the President lacked access to it. Given Mr. Obama's bully pulpit and his omnipresence on the national stage, his voice has been louder than anybody's. If Mr. Obama has lost the public debate to the beleaguered rump that is the congressional GOP, he has nobody to blame but himself.

It's not accurate to blame this on "spineless Democrats," i.e. rank-and-file legislators who balked at the various solutions offered by Mr. Obama. Moderate Democrats might have defected because they were worried about their jobs - but the point of popular elections is to link the personal interests of legislators with the interests of their constituents. It often fails to work - but in a situation where "spineless Democrats" clearly voted with their districts, it seems to have been working pretty well. One might argue that they should have shown some leadership - voted for unpopular bills because they were good for the country. But ask those thirty to forty House Democratic defectors on the health care, cap-and-trade, and jobs bills whether they thought the bills were good for the country, and you'll hear a different answer than the one Newsweek is quick to give.

It's not accurate to blame this on the people. This country is most certainly divided, but not deeply so. Consider, for instance, the enormous goodwill that greeted Mr. Obama upon his inauguration. It is not tenable to suggest that there was no way to turn that into a broad consensus for policy solutions.

The responsibility for the government's failure in the last year rests with President Obama. Two significant blunders stand out.

First, President Obama has installed Nancy Pelosi as de facto Prime Minister - giving her leave to dominate not only the House, but also the entire domestic policy agenda. The indefatigable Speaker Pelosi has taken advantage of the President's laissez-faire attitude by governing from the left.

That's not to say that the left has been happy with the domestic proposals that have come up for a vote. Instead, the point is that policy has consistently been built from the left - thanks in no small part to the very liberal chairs of key committees - with compromises made to win just enough centrist votes to get passage. On the jobs bill, the health care bill, and the cap-and-trade bill, the Democrats won only narrow victories due to mass defections on their own side. Almost all of these defections were from the center. Faced with a choice between losing a moderate or a liberal, the Speaker has consistently chosen to sacrifice the moderate.

It's easy to blame the Senate for inactivity - but the problem is the House. It has consistently passed legislation that is too far to the left for the Senate and the country. Ultimate responsibility rests with the President, whose expressed indifference toward policy details has allowed the more vigorous House Democrats, led by an extraordinarily vigorous Speaker, to dominate. That the President consistently praised the House and blamed the Senate in his State of the Union address suggests that he remains unaware of this problem.

The President's second major failing has been his stubborn insistence on comprehensive reforms. Perhaps this is due to his inexperience in the federal lawmaking process, or his extraordinary vanity, or both. Still, this has been a grave mistake. If the truly great Henry Clay could not pass the Compromise of 1850 through the Congress in a single package, what made Barack Obama think he could sign comprehensive energy and health care reforms?

President Obama's desire for comprehensive legislation seriously damaged the chances for bipartisanship, given his decision to let Nancy Pelosi and her allies write the bills. Republican "extremism" is an easy rhetorical foil - but when we're talking about Mike Castle and Olympia Snowe voting against the President, it fails to explain the full story. Bipartisanship implies legislators with different world views working together. The larger a bill's scope, the more likely it favors one worldview over another, and the less likely it will attract bipartisan support. With an extremely liberal Speaker and a supporting cast of left wing committee chairs running the process, comprehensive legislation was bound to favor heavily the liberal worldview. Even the most moderate of Republicans would always have trouble with that. In fact, thirty to forty House Democrats have defected on the President's key items, meaning that the bipartisan position has been opposition to President Obama. This has made it difficult for a centrist public to support reforms. With very limited information on specifics, the public took unanimous Republican and substantial moderate Democratic opposition as cues about the merits of the bills. Public opposition is what ultimately ended the Democratic supermajority - in Massachusetts, of all places.

Both of these failures get back to the idea that this country can only be led effectively when there is a broad coalition supporting her leaders. That requires those leaders to have a breadth of vision that this President has so far lacked. He has allowed a very liberal Speaker to lead the House too far to the left, and he has demanded comprehensive reforms that were destined to alienate a significant portion of the country.

He has been narrow, not broad. He has been partial, not post-partisan. He has been ideological, not pragmatic. No number of "eloquent" speeches can alter these facts. This is why his major initiatives have failed, why his net job approval has dropped 50 points in 12 months, and why he is substantially weaker now than he was a year ago.

This strategy might have made sense if the country was really in the midst of a "liberal moment." But it is not. While the President won a decisive victory in 2008, his congressional majority in both chambers depends entirely upon members whose constituents voted for John McCain. In fact, the President's election 16 months ago was one of the most polarizing in recent history. This remains a divided country, which creates complications in a system such as ours. The President should have recognized this, and governed with a view to building a broad coalition. But he has not.

America is not ungovernable. Barack Obama has so far failed to govern it.

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-Jay Cost

No, Seriously. There Are No Permanent Majorities!

Last year around this time, as the liberal world was flush with excitement over the upcoming inauguration of Barack Obama, I dedicated much of the space on this blog to arguing that the new Democratic majority would not be permanent.

I listed a lot of reasons for this, but my biggest argument was that it is very difficult for a single party to govern this country to the satisfaction of its broad, diverse populace. And sooner or later, when the majority party screws up, the other side gets its opening.

Steve Kornacki, writing on his blog this week, suggested that this is exactly what is happening in Massachusetts. He argues that Massachusetts drifted out of the GOP's reach around 1994 when it became dominated by "southern/religious-based conservatism," but now that the Democrats are totally in charge, the GOP finally has an opening. Here's his key graf:

[W]ith Republicans locked out power in Washington, swing voters in Massachusetts -- and every other blue state -- are, for the first time since 1994, ready to blame their problems on Democrats and use the GOP as a protest vehicle. And with 10 percent unemployment, voters have a lot of anger to vent.

This is exactly right. When the country is angry about the state of the union, and it feels that it's time for a change, it will vote for the opposition party as a "protest vehicle." Why? Because in our two-party system there is no place else for the people to go. They might not like the opposition, but it is a choice between them and the status quo.

This is why I'm not a big believer in the "Yeah, but the Republican brand is tarnished" meme that's been floating around out there. I think that could help the Democrats some, but the country tends to take a slightly jaundiced view of both parties to begin with. Neither party could ever credibly claim to have clean hands. As Madison wrote in Federalist 51: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."

If it's a choice between the status quo and an opposition party that has disappointed in the past, sometimes circumstances demand the opposition. Historically speaking, that's simply a true statement. There have been multiple periods in our country's history when the people have swung back and forth between the parties, casting about for somebody - anybody - who could manage public affairs competently. The most violent swings came in the 1880s-1890s as the country struggled through the latter phases of the industrial revolution, but we saw a more recent one in 1974-1982. In both periods, neither side had given the people much reason for confidence, but that did not stop them from using both as "protest vehicles."

Ultimately, this is what dooms a majority party. Sooner or later, it's going to find itself having to deal with voter anger when times turn tough. When that happens, the country will get behind the opposition. Sometimes this happens quickly. Sometimes it takes a while. But it always happens. The only exception comes in the early period of the country when the Federalists were essentially destroyed, but one-party Republican rule did not last, beginning to break down during the War of 1812 as factions within the Jeffersonian Republicans began to differentiate themselves.

Plus, it's important to keep in mind the flip side. The minority party, recently pushed to the sidelines, is not content to stand still. It's struggling to redefine itself, change its strategy, find a way to acquire the majority. Why? Because that is its purpose. Political parties are engaged in an inexorable pursuit of majority status. What we're seeing in Massachusetts is a good indication of what a minority party is prepared to do for that goal. Should he gut out the victory next week, Scott Brown is ultimately going to disappoint the national Republican base. He will want to be reelected next time, which means he'll situate himself well to the left of most of his fellow Republicans. Yet he's raking in dollars hand over first this week. Republicans everywhere know that Brown will be a moderate, so why are they so giving him so much cash? Because he's one more vote closer to the majority (and, more immediately, an end to the filibuster-proof majority that party-switcher Arlen Specter handed the Democrats). Ideological diversity is a problem for a party to worry about only after its returned to the majority. Until then, few on the Republican side will complain about a little adulteration if it hastens the party's return to power.

This is not some sort of new dynamic. Indeed, if you scan the political history of the United States since 1824, you'll see it play itself out again and again. Parties in the majority have trouble hanging on while the opposition gets more crafty in its efforts to climb back to power. That's how American politics works. That's what we're seeing this year.

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-Jay Cost

Democrats Risk Another Jacksonian Moment

Several years ago, I traveled to Washington, D.C. for the first time as an adult. My most vivid memory from that journey was walking away from Union Station - looking to my left at the United States Capitol, then looking to my right to see...the Teamster's Union building.

It was a disheartening sight - not because I have anything against the Teamsters, but because it reminded me that they're down there: the lobbyists, the special interests, the rent-seekers - all looking to extract favors from the Congress.

Like all Americans, I know that they're down there, and I don't think it is a good way for a government to function. Yet, I tolerate it - because I believe they're mostly just tinkering at the margins. Sure, they're diverting some of my tax dollars to things that have nothing to do with me - but it's a tiny portion. As long as they're not actively getting in my way - I'm inclined to shake my head, but let it be. I reckon that many Americans feel the same.

This is why Democratic leaders are courting disaster with this health care bill. With it, they've moved their questionable wheelings and dealings from the margins to the center of American life. And because of this, they risk being swept away in another Jacksonian moment.

Make no mistake. This bill is so unpopular because it has all the characteristics that most Americans find so noxious about Washington.

It stinks of politics. Why is there such a rush to pass this bill now? It's because the President of the United States recognizes that it is hurting his numbers, and he wants it off the agenda. It might not be ready to be passed. In fact, it's obviously not ready! Yet that doesn't matter. The President wants this out of the way by his State of the Union Address. This is nakedly self-interested political calculation by the President - nothing more and nothing less.

What makes this all the more perversely political is that the bill's benefits do not kick in for years. Why? Politics again! Democrats wish to claim that the bill reduces the deficit, so they collect ten years worth of revenue but only pay five years worth of benefits.

The Congress and the President are rushing to wait - not because that's best for health care, but best for the political careers of Washington Democrats.

It stinks of influence peddlers. Reviewing winners and losers in the Senate health care bill shows clearly that it was written with the full advice and consent of privileged interest groups. Here are some of the most amazing provisions, courtesy of the AP:

-Nebraska, Louisiana, Vermont and Massachusetts. These states are getting more federal help with Medicaid than other states. In the case of Nebraska -- represented by Sen. Ben Nelson, who's providing the critical 60th vote for the legislation to pass -- the federal government is picking up 100 percent of the tab of a planned expansion of the program, in perpetuity.

-Beneficiaries of Medicare Advantage plans -- the private managed-care plans within Medicare -- in Florida. Hundreds of thousands of them will have their benefits grandfathered in thanks to a provision tailored by Sen. Bill Nelson.

-Longshoremen. They were added to the list of workers in high-risk professions who are shielded from the full impact of a proposed new tax on high-value insurance plans.

Big corporations get nice paydays, too. Private insurance industries get the public option eliminated. Meanwhile, PhRMA made sure that there would be no significant prescription drug re-importation provision in the bill. Byron Dorgan said the FDA might have put the kibosh on it because of pressure from the White House.

Yet when it comes to big, wet kisses for entrenched interests, you can't beat the individual mandate. People will soon have to buy health insurance from private companies, or else face a tax penalty from Uncle Sam. Democrats who think they can come back later to fix this perverse result are kidding themselves. The insurance lobby is already so powerful that Democrats couldn't get the public option through now - what makes them think they'll be able to later, after they've given insurers 30 million additional customers, and required every last American to do business with them? The insurance companies are going to be to the 21st century what Standard Oil was to the 19th.

It stinks of partisanship. Not a single Republican will vote for this bill in the Senate. I doubt it will get a single House Republican if the Stupak language is excluded. Partisan Democrats like to think that this is because Republicans are too partisan. That's ridiculous. Nobody can seriously accuse Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins of partisan hackery. Plus, Orin Hatch has been a major player in health care reform over the years, and Chuck Grassley made a good faith effort this summer to find common ground.

The fact that the President can't find a single Republican vote out of more than 200 potential supporters is a strong indication that this is a bad bill. The only people willing to vote for it are people who share with the President interests that are unrelated to health care. The biggest shared interest is their political livelihood: Democrats sink or swim together. But that's a horrible reason to vote for a bill that will affect so many people in such a profound way.

Ben Nelson sits in the middle of the Senate. He could be a Democrat or a Republican. If he were a Republican, but everything else about him were the same, would he have voted for this? Of course not. That should tell you everything you need to know about this bill.

People in Congress and the lobbyists who court them have pretty good gigs. They have nice offices, make big salaries, and have lots of people hop to at their say so. Yet ultimately, all of their money, power, and prestige come from the people. The people are the sole source of sovereignty in our nation. Our Constitution opens, "We the people of the United States" - not "We the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers of the United States" or "We the senior members of Congress with plum committee assignments." Everything about our system is the way it is because the people allow it to be that way. This is why it's best for the entrenched interests and the politicians to keep their under-handed means and particularistic ends from affecting the people. They can take it all away in a single instant - so the smart approach is not to give them a reason.

This Congress and this President seem hell-bent on ignoring that maxim. It started last year with TARP. It continued into this year with the pork-laden, wasteful stimulus bill. It moved to the auto bailouts, reckless deficit spending, and coziness with Wall Street. And now, it has moved to health care "reform." The people are taking notice, they don't like it, and they're starting to blame the government for the weakened state of the union.

We might be on the verge of another Jacksonian moment: a time when the people awake from their slumber, angrily exercise their sovereign authority, and mercilessly fire the leaders who have for too long catered to the elites rather than average people. The first time this happened was in 1828 - when the people rallied to the cause of Old Hickory to avenge the "Corrupt Bargain" of four years prior. It's happened several times throughout the centuries. Most relevant to today, it happened time and again in the 1880s and 1890s, as the people hired then fired one Republican and Democratic majority after another in search of leaders who could attend to the people's interests instead of the special interests. That age saw the birth of the Populist Party. It was a time when so many felt so disgruntled by the political process that young William Jennings Bryan - just thirty-six years old and with only two terms in the House - came within a hundred thousand votes of the presidency.

I wonder if we've returned to that kind of dynamic. In true Jacksonian fashion, the country fired the Republicans in 2006 and 2008 because they bungled the war in Iraq and allowed the economy to sink into recession. They might soon have another Jacksonian moment, and fire these equally useless Democrats for hampering the recovery, exploding the deficit, and playing politics with health care.

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-Jay Cost

The Michael Steele Vanity Project

As I have written time and again, I think Republicans should be concerned that Michael Steele is working to transform the Republican National Committee from a behind-the-scenes fundraising/campaigning powerhouse into a platform for his own political career. I have written about this at length, and now Politico adds a new wrinkle:

Trevor Francis, communications director of the Republican National Committee, abruptly resigned Monday, and two Republican strategists familiar with the situation said he was pushed out because Chairman Michael Steele didn't feel he was getting enough credit for the GOP's electoral success earlier this month...

A former official at public relations giant Burson-Marsteller, Francis was tasked with trying to keep the voluble Steele on message and explaining away the instances when he strayed.

While still occasionally committing gaffes, Steele has become more disciplined in his frequent TV appearances.

But after Republicans won the closely watched gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey this month, Steele expressed frustration that he wasn't receiving accolades for the party's success, said the two Republicans, both of whom conveyed frustration with the chairman's leadership style.

OK. Reality check. Chairman Steele deserves very little credit for the Republican resurgence this year. He may have contributed the cash, but this cash came in just as cash always comes into the RNC, and any chairman in his right mind would have contributed to promising campaigns. Come on.

As I have written many times, this is the "candidate centered" age of elections. It's not the "What Up! Everybody look at me, I'm Michael Steele!" age of elections.

If Trevor Francis lost his job because Michael Steele is confused on this matter...oh dear.

Memo to Republican pooh-bahs: This fellow is a problem, an unnecessary problem in a midterm cycle in which you hope to take a giant step toward a full comeback. The requirements for the RNC chairman are pretty straightforward: raise the cash, spout the party line on cue, don't cause trouble.

Can Steele do this?

If he can't, what are you going to do about it?

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-Jay Cost

How To Divide a Party, In Three Easy Steps!

So, you've decided to become the leader of a big political party. Only one problem: it's too big! What to do?

Well, you've come to the right place. Here at the Horse Race Blog, we've developed a three-step guide to making that broad party a little more...narrow. Just follow these simple instructions and your majority party will be smaller and a little easier to handle in no time!


Step 1: Participate in a bitterly divisive nomination battle against a prominent opponent, making sure that you only win certain factions within the party. Leave your opponent to win other factions, even down to the very last contest. If possible, make condescending remarks about how bitter, clingy, and xenophobic some of those other factions in your own party are. This will ensure that they remain perpetually skeptical of your administration.

Having won the nomination, make no serious effort to unite this divided and fractured party. Do not nominate for vice-president somebody who is a prominent member of the opposing faction. For instance, if you're a Northern/urban candidate looking to alienate Southern/rural members of your party - make sure that the well-regarded governor of Tennessee does not find his way onto the ticket. Also, no unity tickets. Make your primary opponent swallow hard and endorse you, then give the veep nomination to somebody else.

If you complete Step 1 perfectly, you should see early signs of success. Namely, lifelong members of your party will vote for the opposition, perhaps for the first time ever. If they do this in an election that you win decisively anyway, all the better. That's how you know you're off to a good start.

Step 2: Design your cabinet so that there are few (if any) prominent members of the opposing faction installed in any important posts. If you followed Step 1 perfectly, it means your primary opponent is still out in the cold. You might have to nominate her to a prominent spot. That's less than ideal, but it is understandable. However, make no additional gestures to those other factions in the party.

That popular governor from Tennessee? He should be nowhere to be found. That senior statesmen from Georgia? Again, nowhere. How about that bipartisan bridge-builder from Louisiana? I don't know where he is, but he better not be at your cabinet meetings. After all, what you don't want are those hard feelings being softened because of the composition of your government.

Also, think big. It's important to be as broadly dismissive as possible. For instance, your cabinet should not only sample almost exclusively from the North, it should also draw heavily from urban areas. Bottom line: don't think one-dimensionally about your cabinet. It can be used to disgruntle multiple factions in your party at once!

Finally, it's smart to staff your West Wing with as many "hacks" from your campaign as possible. After all, these are the people who helped you split your party into two pieces in your quest to win the nomination. It's a good idea to keep them around, for there is a lot more work on that front left to do!

Step 3: These opposing factions in your party will now be thoroughly frustrated. Good work! It's time to kick it up a notch - by aggressively, relentlessly pursuing a legislative agenda that they obviously can't support.

Ideally, you'll want the leadership in the Congress to be chock full of fellow Northern/urban members. You can't control that yourself, but if you're so lucky as to have leaders equally committed to shrinking the size of your party - you can let them do most of the work. Take a back seat and just exhort them to follow their instincts. They'll know what to do!

Again, think multi-dimensionally. For instance, if the focus is on health care, encourage them to push through a massive expansion of government. That's bound to aggravate the South, which has never been too thrilled about the idea of a big federal government. But also, do not try to stop your urban allies if they push for a "robust" public option, which would be a particularly tough pill for rural members of Congress to swallow.

Other things like a massive government bureaucracy for "cap-and-trade," subsidization of the auto industries, and retaining your predecessor's bailout of (mostly Northern!) banks are all excellent ways to tweak those pesky Jacksonian "friends" of yours! Also, encourage those congressional leaders to help you blow a huge hole in the deficit, so that those Southern deficit hawks know that there's a new sheriff in town.

Ultimately, what you want are not simply defections for the major bills, but also defections on small ball procedural matters. That's a sign that your rank-and-file "allies" have realized that your legislative program is so unpopular in their districts that they must oppose you on every vote. Voting against the rule is halfway to joining the opposition, which means you're halfway to your goal!


Following these steps to the letter will ensure a nicely divided party heading into the midterm elections. Of course, the mainstream media will not notice this, as they will be obsessing over the comparatively insignificant divisions in the opposition. But take heart! You have now finished the hard work necessary for long term success: a smaller political party that is less able to build a majority coalition in years to come. Congratulations!

That's what you wanted, right?

Follow me now on Twitter!

-Jay Cost

The Lesson of NY-23

With all the twists and turns in the race for New York's 23rd Congressional District, it seems like it should mean something, right? You don't have all this drama without some higher purpose, or so the thinking goes. Predictably, pundits have been working overtime to explain the point of this soap opera in Watertown.

For what it's worth, I do not think that a special election - any special election - is a particularly good barometer of the political climate of any place outside the district in question. Factor in low turnout, and sometimes it is hard to argue that it's even a good barometer inside the district. The race in NY-23 is further complicated by a prominent third party candidate. So, I think there are no inferences to draw from this race about national politics. And I think most analysts would essentially agree on that point. Pontificating aside, will anybody update their 2010 predictions based on the outcome in this race?

That being said, I do think there is a lesson to be learned here. It just doesn't have anything to do with the 2010 midterm, Barack Obama, the health care battle, etc. It's not so much a current events lesson as it is a civics lesson. The drama in this race is yet another example of the fundamental truth about the contemporary party organization: it is extraordinarily weak. And I don't mean that the 2010 Republican Party is weak. I'm talking about the whole system: Democrats and Republicans; local, state, and federal; congressional and electoral. Weak, weak, weak!

Consider the circumstances of this three-way, now two-way race. The local Republican Party organization nominated a candidate that the party's core electorate was not prepared to accept. What happened next?

If the party organization was strong, we would have expected the base to swallow hard, respect the power of the organization in this case, and get behind Scozzafava. But since the organization is weak, the base revolted and started migrating to the Hoffman camp.

Predictably, the national and local party organizations stood behind Scozzafava. That's their job, afterall. But as the race drew national attention - strategic politicians with ambitions for higher office began to involve themselves. What happened next?

If the party organization was strong, we would have expected those strategic pols to recognize the dangers of upsetting the powers-that-be in the party machinery, and to back Scozzafava against the base. But since the organization is weak, they started lining up behind Hoffman, one after another. Some of them even "bravely" changed their endorsements after they realized that the base disagreed with their initial decisions!

A unique factor facilitating this turnaround was the Conservative Party, a mainstay of New York politics that helps set the electoral agenda in the state. In this case it gave disaffected Republicans an easy outlet to voice their grievances. Still, when we strip away all the unique features of this particular race, we find a generalizable quality to this contest: the political power of the Republican Party is not really housed in the party organization - not in NY-23, and not really anywhere else. Instead, party power lies in the nexus of party activists/donors, base voters, and ambitious officeholders/candidates. As the events in NY-23 have made pretty clear, the party organizations play a limited role in the game of power politics.

In fact, they have been weak for a long time. Progressives took the general right to nominate party candidates away from them. The New Deal and good government reforms stripped them of most of their patronage. So nowadays, party bosses don't really have the power to boss anybody around. They have no carrots and no sticks. That's not a good recipe for a 21st century Boss Tweed!

The drama in NY-23 shows just how weak today's party organizations are. Quirkily enough, the local party had the technical power to nominate a candidate without a primary. However, while there wasn't a de jure primary here - the base's response to Scozzafava was tantamount to a de facto primary. Party leaders like Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty were quick to "certify" those results because they have national ambitions that will ultimately require the support of those same base voters. And that was it for Scozzafava, the choice of the local party organization.

As I have argued many times on this blog, contemporary party organizations - from the Republican National Committee all the way down - really have just one job: to launder money to cash-strapped candidates who must spend massive amounts of dollars in a campaign finance environment governed by restrictive laws like the FECA and the BCRA. Once these organizations step beyond this role - and especially when they go against the mass of voters who constitute the party base - they have virtually no authority.

This party impotence extends from the very top and travels all the way down to the local level. At the top, the victorious President gets to redesign his national committee in his own image. Congressional party leaders have no power whatsoever to remove defectors from their seats. In actuality, they'll funnel as much money as possible to defectors who are in electoral trouble. And state and local parties? If the withdrawal of Scozzafava isn't evidence enough of just how little power they actually have, I'll put it this way. Most of you reading this are greatly interested in politics. A lot of you probably contribute dollars and maybe even time to your favorite candidates. To you, I'd ask: how much money and time have you contributed to your state and local parties?

-Jay Cost

Republicans Should Be Concerned About What's Happening to the RNC

One of the features of contemporary American politics that I find really interesting is that voters see themselves as ideologues rather than partisans. "I'm a conservative first and a Republican second." Or, "I'm a progressive who happens to affiliate with the Democratic Party!" I take this to be a consequence of America's ambivalence toward the two-party system, which dates back to the Founding.

I think this anti-party sentiment is generally fine. It actually has a lot of benefits. Americans like to see themselves not as factionalists, but as nationalists. The ideologies they subscribe to have a universal character to them. Conservativism and liberalism offer something for everybody. The parties, on the other hand, are factional. They (almost) always have been. I think that helps explain the antipathy toward the parties in the mass public, and the preference among many strong partisans to see themselves as ideologues rather than partisans. It's also a way for them to differentiate themselves from the party caucus in the Congress, which is almost never popular.

Yet this aversion to party politics does have some unfortunate side effects. Conservatives might read National Review, might never miss an installment of the Rush Limbaugh Show, and might dutifully put out the quadrennial Bush/Cheney or McCain/Palin yard sign - but they rarely participate in party politics. The party organizations are not the locus of mass political activity. In decades past, some local and state parties did have that role, but not any more. Instead, today's party organizations are little more than legal money-laundering units that help candidates get around campaign finance laws.

In the last five years, I have noticed a peculiar phenomenon about the national party committees. Twice in a row the out-party's committee seems to have been "captured" by an ambitious politician who seems more interested in making a name for himself rather than doing the nitty-gritty, unglamorous work of laundering money. I think two factors help explain this.

First, the national party organizations remain weak (as they always have been), but state party organizations have been on the decline for some time. They are not a place where partisans meet up and participate in politics. This means that ambitious politicos looking to make a name for themselves are not heading to the state parties, and of course not going to the national organizations. Instead, they look to be congressional aides, White House staffers, or maybe to a spot in a state legislature. Simply put, there is a shallow talent pool.

Second, the party organizations do control quite a lot of money. That's a consequence of federal law - first the Federal Elections Campaign Act (FECA) and now the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA, a.k.a. McCain-Feingold). As is typical with broad laws like these, they are full of unintended side-effects. Combined, these laws make the parties an excellent place for donors with spare dollars to send their cash. Because the Supreme Court struck down provisions of the BCRA, the parties can spend unlimited dollars on behalf of candidates so long as the dollars are "independent" (yeah right!). All of this means that the national committees literally raise hundreds of millions of dollars every cycle.

Combined, these factors provide a strong incentive to ambitious, semi-famous politicians to serve as national committee chairman as a way to stay relevant. These pols might not be able to win elections themselves, but candidates who want to win have to come to them. Plus, the cable networks are always happy to host them - with the absurd implication that they are somehow the "leaders" of their respective parties. Because the talent pool is so shallow in the party organization system, there is not a great deal of competition.

Case in point: Howard Dean. Dean's flame-out in the 2004 primaries was so spectacular that I don't think he had anywhere else to go. So, he ran for chair of the DNC, and served there for four years. Today, Democrats control the White House, all the executive agencies, and both chambers of Congress. Yet why does Howard Dean not have a government job or even a prominent non-governmental agency position? I ask that question rhetorically, for the answer to me is pretty obvious: he did a crap job as DNC Chairman, taking it from the fundraising powerhouse that it was in the Terry McAuliffe years and turning it into the runt of the Democratic litter.

I have suspected for a while that Michael Steele might ultimately fall into the same category. Politically, he was sort of in a dead-end. He had served a brief stint as Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, but then lost a 2006 Senate race to Ben Cardin. He did not have a lot of political opportunities by the time 2009 rolled around, and perhaps that is why he ran for the RNC chair.

His brief tenure to date has only enhanced my suspicions. He talks about expanding the party to blacks and Hispanics. That's a good thing in theory, but it is not the job of the RNC chairman. Worse, the appeal seems to me to be shallow and vain. The party would reach out not by developing new policy proposals to appeal to these voters, but by promoting its new, oh-so-hip chairman, i.e. lots of face time for Michael Steele!

And of course, there are the incredibly foolish things he says. These began to dribble out of his mouth literally as soon as he won the position. Remember this message he delivered to President Obama when he won the chairmanship? "I would say to the new president, congratulations. It is going to be an honor to spar with him...And I would follow that up with: How do you like me now?" The vanity of that line is matched only by its utter stupidity. Actually, the two are intertwined. You'd have to be vain and stupid to think that the President of the United States would ever give a second thought to the chairman of the Republican National Committee. The President probably laughed when he heard that. I sure did.

The gaffes have slowed over the last few months, but they have not stopped. Just recently, he launched a blog called "What Up?" whose inaugural post contained not one, but two grammatical mistakes. Allah over at HotAir blogged about this, and he summed up his assessment with a single guttural noise: groan. That the RNC has since changed Steele's blog name is a sign that either they came to their senses, or somebody who is somebody told them to dump it. Personally, I thought it was incredibly condescending. Steele's strategy for appealing to minority voters includes butchering the English language? What does that say about Steele's opinion of these targeted voters?

Steele's priorities appear to be misplaced, and his erroneous view of what a good chairman does might ultimately manifest itself in FEC reports. So far, he has not done an exemplary job of raising money. Year-to-date, the RNC has pulled in about $51 million dollars in contributions. That is $5 million less than 2007 at this point, $22 million less than 2005, and $19 million less than 2003. The RNC under Steele got off to a very slow start - the February through June '09 reports showed the RNC raising less than the other years every month. The July and September reports were better, but August was still behind. Plus, an important point to remember about 2003 and 2007 is that there were Republican presidential candidates collecting dollars that might otherwise have gone to the RNC. Michael Steele does not have that kind of competition this year. The best comparison in the McCain-Feingold era is 2005, and Steele is well behind.

Above all, the RNC needs to focus on its fundraising infrastructure. It must be ready for the Obama money tsunami that will be crashing ashore in the fall of 2012. If you thought the President raised a lot of money last cycle, you haven't seen anything yet! Also, the party needs to figure out why the Democrats have managed not only to catch up to, but actually exceed, the Republicans in fundraising - this after the banning of soft money, which had historically helped the Democrats. That's a puzzler that should have Republicans - above all Michael Steele - thinking about innovation. This should be happening to the exclusion of guest hosting radio shows, Mr. Chairman!

Republicans should be worried about Michael Steele. I wouldn't press the panic button just yet. The last report was not too bad, so maybe he is turning a corner. Yet all told there are big reasons for concern. If Steele cannot start behaving himself and demonstrate competence in fundraising, Republicans might want to start looking at other places to contribute their dollars. If Steele's RNC cannot accomplish these basic tasks, why should Republicans assume it can spend the money well, either? There are alternative sources for party dollars: the National Republican Congressional Committee for House candidates, the National Republican Senatorial Committee for Senate candidates, and the Republican Governors Association for gubernatorial candidates. I'd note that Democrats did something like this in 2006 and 2008: as the DNC's fundraising lagged because of Dean's ineptitude, the DCCC and the DSCC prospered as smart Democratic donors found a more reliable place to contribute their dollars.

Republicans might not participate directly in the party committees, but they can always vote their disapproval with their dollars. They might have to do that.

-Jay Cost

Realignment: The Theory Will Never Go Away

As I have written on this page many, many times - realignment is not a good theory for understanding the ebb and flow of American politics. Yet popular political commentators (rarely academics, who really only use it these days to describe the movements of discrete geographical or demographic blocs of voters) continue to trot it out after every election.

Brent Budowsky today declares that the most recent realignment is dead. How a realignment can die, I'm not exactly sure. But anyway, he writes:

Realignment is dead. President Barack Obama and Democrats blew it.

Dealignment has arrived. Republicans blew it, and are now so repellent that Americans increasingly reject both political parties.

Here's my question, if we can go from being "realigned" to "dealigned" in just a few short months, when were we ever aligned in the first place? Doesn't alignment imply some permanence to it? This is the OED's definition of "align:"

To bring into line with a particular tradition, policy, group, or power.

That implies some stability, does it not? If something is being brought into line with "tradition, policy, group, or power" it is as if it once did not fit but now it does. How then could it be brought out of line so quickly, unless it was never in line to begin with (or, my theory, there is not really a line for it to fall into!).

And let us remember that dealignment was a term used in the 1970s. The theory was that the two parties had failed to deal with issues like race, crime, and Vietnam - and that voters were thus beginning to eschew party labels, the parties were falling into decay, and we were in a dealigning phase. The startup time for this dealignment was actually around the last rightward realignment that Budowsky identifies, i.e. 1968. One person's realignment is another's dealignment, I guess.

My take: this piece is just another example of the kind of Ptolemaic epicycles one must add to the realignment theory to get it to work. It's not that there never was a realignment, it is that it "died" because the Democrats "blew it" in just eight short months. Children conceived before the realignment began have not yet been born before it's over - but it was still a realignment. Er? That's a tipoff to the problem. Again, my take is that realignment is an overly structural concept that is based on outdated theories; as a grand catchall to describe the dynamics of the American political process, it is not terribly helpful.

But of course I don't think we ever will get rid of realignment, as the title suggests. Science eventually was swept up in the Copernican Revolution, but political commentators will always be Ptolemaist when it comes to realignment. It is such an appealing idea. In its popular form it offers a simple, easy-to-grasp picture of the grand sweep of American political history. If you don't stare too hard at the messy details that don't fit the narrative, it is elegant and even beautiful. Plus, if your party happened to win the most recent election, you're all the more inclined to talk about realignment, as it suggests you are extremely likely to win the next couple!

-Jay Cost

It's Not Just About Winning Elections...

Bill Greener has an article at Salon trumpeting the new enduring Democratic majority. We can now count him as yet another Republican to make this point. Greener has a reasonable conclusion, suggesting that the GOP needs to find a way to appeal to Hispanics without sacrificing its core principles. However, to make this argument he tells a tale about impending GOP doom that ultimately rests on some weak reasoning, most of which we have seen before. This point in particular struck me as especially flimsy:

In 1976, 90 percent of the votes cast in the presidential election came from non-Hispanic whites. In 2008, John McCain won this vote by a 56-43 margin. Had John McCain run in 1976 instead of 2008, not only would he have won, but he would have won the popular vote before a single non-white vote was cast.

What's the analytical purchase from re-running the 2008 vote with the 1976 demographics? How can you hold one constant and let the other vary? It seems to me that they are related - so if one changes, the other does, too. In particular, the Democrats have moved away from the South since Jimmy Carter ran in 1976; instead, they have looked to the West, the historical domain of the GOP. Isn't this at least in part due to the rise of Hispanics, especially in California? If so, how can you plug the new numbers into the old demographics? That will ultimately generate a bizarre result, like John McCain decisively winning an election that Jerry Ford couldn't. Er?

Also, this is just strange to me:

To make matters even worse, our weakness among minority voters is somewhat masked when it comes to elections that are not national. How can that be? Thanks to redistricting, and the legal imperative to give emphasis to "community of interests," these minority voters tend to be jammed into congressional districts where they are the overwhelming majority. That means the other districts tend to be more white in nature, and thus more friendly territory for Republicans. Then, at the level of the Senate, the reality is that Utah and Wyoming get the same number of senators as do California and New York.

What this means is that when it comes to an issue like immigration reform, the pressure on Republicans who actually have been elected to office is more often to favor a position that is unattractive to minority voters. If they were to take a different position, they might find themselves facing a primary challenger supported by the party's activist base. So, at the expense of any long-term perspective, the Republican Party is likely to be responsive to the sentiment of the people responsible for them serving at this very moment.

I'll grant that the racial distribution across congressional districts *might* "skew" legislative preferences on immigration (but see the footnote below for pushback on this point!) - although given the geographical concentration of Hispanics in just a handful of states, and then in discrete areas within many of those states, redistricting is not so much the problem as geographical-based single-member districts are. Still, this is actually a net electoral advantage for Republicans. Assume a 50-50 split among the parties, something akin to 2004. That year, George W. Bush won 255 congressional districts to Kerry's 180. Why the disparity? The Republican vote was distributed more evenly, while the Democratic vote was concentrated in urban and minority-majority districts. This is a distinct advantage that Republicans enjoy. To win the House, Democrats have had to win districts that Republican presidential candidates carry in 50-50 years. This is not inconsequential for public policy. As UCSD's Gary Jacobson noted in the Spring, 2009 issue of Political Science Quarterly, "Republicans hold a significant structural advantage in the competition for House seats," and:

This circumstance will have the effect of moderating the Democratic caucus, because Democrats representing such districts are, of political necessity, considerably more moderate than other Democrats. Similarly, more than half of the Democratic senators who replaced Republicans in 2006 and 2008 are from states in the South or the Mountain West, and they, too, will have to compile moderate records or risk defeat.

Hence Blue Dog resistance to health care reform. This also suggests that the Democrats might have the same problem in advancing immigration reform, given the large number of members who come from mostly white, conservative-tilting districts. You can stick either a Democrat or a Republican in districts like PA-12, MS-1 or CO-4. Those reps will be hard-pressed to vote yea. Perhaps this is why the issue has been tabled this year?

More broadly, assume that the distribution of GOP voters interferes with its ability to win Hispanics. Might not the Democrats have a similar problem? The chairmen of key House committees and other leaders - Frank, Rangel, Waxman, Conyers, Pelosi, etc - often come from districts that have little in common with swing districts. In fact, Bush's median share of the vote in 2004 in the districts of committee chairmen and leadership in the 111th Congress was just 36%. Can these Democrats be expected to have the individual incentives to craft policy designed to help the Democrats maintain a national majority?

This enduring majority argument also has some serious meta-level difficulties, too. Namely:

-You can't draw an inference about a trend (in this case, Hispanics, who looked to be shifting rightward in 2004) from a single data point.

-You can technically do this with two data points (in this case, young voters), but it can easily yield inferential errors. The Baby Boom generation was McGovern's biggest backer but ultimately voted for Reagan.

-You have to find a way to control for the fact that the economy was shrinking at a 6.1% annualized rate by Election Day; otherwise, movement that was induced by the economy (and other non-realigning factors) gets jumbled up with movement induced by realignment. I haven't seen any proponent of this hypothesis take a serious stab at controlling for the economy, as Sean Trende and I tried to do in our election reviews last winter.

-You can't lump African-Americans and Hispanics into a "non-white" group without ignoring the 3.67 million Hispanics who behaved contrary to the theory by...voting for John McCain! This lumping together of non-whites also ignores the volatility of Hispanic voters, who, as Greener does note, gave George W. Bush about 40% of the vote in 2004.

-You can't lump all Hispanics together as a single voting bloc - just as you can't do that for white voters, either! Some are more partial to the GOP than others. George W. Bush did relatively well with Hispanics in New Mexico (44%) and Nevada (39%), but poorly with Hispanics in New York (24%) and Illinois (23%). Additionally, the exit poll suggests that McCain actually did better with Hispanics in Colorado than George W. Bush.

The biggest problem of all is that the analysis is static. It fails to take into account whether and how the Democrats can hold their voting coalition together. It's not just about winning elections, it's about governance. The "realignment" of 1894/1986 was dependent not just on the shocks brought on by the harsh recession of those years, but also by the fact that the Republicans could govern to the satisfaction of the country, thus prohibiting Bryan and the Democrats from picking off enough voters from the Republican coalition in 1900. Today's arguments about a new, enduring Democratic majority are necessarily static because...the Democrats have not really governed yet! The age of Obama has just begun, seeing as we are only 12.5% of the way through his term.

An enduring majority requires victory across many elections, which in turn requires keeping enough of your voters happy. This is easier said than done - and Democrats have a challenge on their hands. The evidence of this is everywhere these days, and the highly astute Michael Barone connects a particular policy problem to the recent election:

Last Friday in the Beltway Confidential blog I called attention to the letter signed by Democratic Congressman Jared Polis and 20 other Democrats, 19 freshmen and one sophomore, opposing the $554 billion supertax on high earners included in the House Democrats' health care bill...

According to the Edison-Mitofsky exit poll, Obama carried voters with incomes under $50,000 and over $200,000. He lost among voters with incomes between $50,000 and $200,000. There's obviously a certain tension between high-income and low-income voters.

Incidentally, in Colorado, Congressman Polis's home state, the exit poll shows Obama getting a higher percentage (56%) among those earning more than $100,000 than among those earning less (53%). It shows Obama getting 53% from those between $100,000 and $150,000, so by interpolation those with incomes over $150,000 (who are the same percentage of the electorate as those in the $100,000-$150,000 bracket) cast 59% of their votes for Obama. Congressman Polis, who thanks to his success as an entrepreneur is among that high-income group, has evidently been paying attention. [Emphasis Mine]

There is a real tension here. Can the Democratic Party achieve its policy goals of improving the living standard of its lower-income voters without alienating its higher-income voters? I'm not so sure. Piling tax increase upon tax increase on the top earners could push them back to the GOP. Alternatively, avoiding tax increases yet running up larger and larger deficits might hurt the Democrats with middle income voters, whose budgets are such that they have to make the kinds of tough choices that (in this scenario) the Democratic-run government won't.

I'm not saying that there is no answer to this puzzle. It could be that the Democrats find a way to handle this tension, or calculate that they can side with one group over the other without losing their majority, or whatever. The point is that this is exactly the kind of balancing act majority parties must do, and that the challenge for the Democrats of actually governing should not be understated or ignored - which it inevitably is in these demographics-are-destiny arguments. As our President is now learning - railing against an unacceptable status quo on the campaign trail is substantially easier than altering it to the satisfaction of the electorate once in government.

The Democrats' majority will be enduring if and only if they can consistently satisfy enough of their voters amidst all of these challenges. Can they? We just don't know yet - and no amount of wishing by hopeful Democrats or fretting by hand-wringing Republicans can possibly change that fact.

* - Too much is made of the effects of gerrymandering on issue positions, and I am hesitant about going along with any conclusions like the one Greener makes connecting immigration to the gerrymander. Just the other day, I received the latest edition of the American Journal of Political Science, which contains an article written by Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal. In it, they ask: "Does Gerrymandering Cause Polarization?" They answer: no! "[C]ongressional polarization is primarily a function of the differences in how Democrats and Republicans represent the same districts rather than a function of which districts each party represents or the distribution of constituency preferences." They "conduct simulations to gauge the level of polarization under various "neutral" districting procedures...[and] find that the actual levels of polarization are not much higher than those produced by the simulations." They conclude: "There are many reasons to do something about gerrymandering. But reducing polarization is not one of them."

-Jay Cost

Realignments: Here, There, and Everywhere

A few years back I attended a conference on the 2004 presidential election. After my presentation, the panel and the audience engaged in a discussion on the implications of the Bush-Kerry contest. Inevitably, the conversation turned to whether or not 2004 was a realigning election. That was when the conversation devolved - as people debated exactly what a realignment was, which previous elections were realignments, what factors were indicative of realignment, and so on. Nobody really got anywhere, nobody really learned anything. It was just kind of a waste of time. Since then, I've come to believe that realignment is not a very helpful category for understanding American elections.

As problematic as realignment theory is, there is a continuous stream of literature coming out of (mostly) non-scholarly circles following every election that argues that the recent election was - you guessed it! - a realigning one. There's a market for this kind of stuff, I suppose, so it gets produced after almost every presidential election.

This cycle, the literature is pointing to the new Democratic majority. But it wasn't so long ago that Democrats were worrying about the new Republican majority. Here, Ron Brownstein reviews five popular consumption books about the would-have-been realignment of 2004. Their predictions were, of course, wrong - and Brownstein is interested in why.

To reread the major political books from the years around Bush's reelection is to be plunged, as if into a cold pool, back into a world of Democratic gloom and anxiety. Those books were linked by the common belief that Republicans had established a thin but durable electoral advantage that threatened to exile Democrats from power for years, if not decades. Many books from that time assumed Democrats could avoid that eclipse only by adopting the tactics used by Republicans in general and Rove in particular. Liberal activists and thinkers all exhorted Democrats to attack Republicans in vitriolic terms, to find liberal "wedge issues" that could divide the electorate as sharply as the conservative stand-bys of abortion, gun control, and gay marriage, and most important to emulate Rove's approach of seeking to win elections more by mobilizing the party's base with an uncompromising message than by persuading swing voters with a more centrist appeal. "Liberals who regard Bush's political strategist as Satan scan the Democratic Party and ask plaintively, 'Where is our Karl Rove?'" write journalists Mark Halperin and John Harris in their 2006 book, The Way to Win.

Brownstein goes on to ask why all these analysts got their predictions wrong. But I think he misses the bigger picture. There are two salient points I'd make on why these theories were off.

First, it's really hard to predict realignments. If we were to graph the history of the balance of power in this country, we'd see lots of change. Sometimes, the needle moves dramatically in one direction, then dramatically in another. Other times, the needle stays on one side for a lasting period - but more often than not one swing is followed by a swing in the other direction. In light of this volatility, how could we ever know that the recent swing is not going to be countered by another one? I say that we cannot. Of course, realignment advocates have all sorts of reasons to expect the latest swing to be more lasting. Yet none of those reasons ever rely on the data we all agree is necessary to establish a theory of realignment: election results! After all, the future elections haven't happened yet. So, other data is substituted where election results should go; this data is inevitably inferior, and the possibility of error creeps in.

Second, realignment is a highly problematic category. I think it is quite useful to capture the electoral behavior of this group or that - but when it's used as a catch-all for a period of the whole country's history, problems emerge. It has never really captured the "story" of a period in history terribly well. So, anytime an analyst uses it to make an argument - they run the risk of trouble. For instance, 1980 is often taken to be a realigning election. Yet why did the House become increasingly liberal over the next decade? That's quite a problem - which is why these days you'll see people use qualifiers "mini realignment" or "semi realignment" or "partial realignment." That's a sure sign a theory is in trouble.

Brownstein never touches on the bigger problems with realignment theory. Instead, he focuses on why these individual arguments were in error. Brownstein himself has really overworked the realignment concept in recent years. As Sean Trende has observed - Brownstein argued for the Republican realignment in 2004 and for the Democratic realignment this year.

Still, his review of these old books is illustrative. Just four years ago, Democrats were fretting and Republicans celebrating the emergence of a permanent Republican majority. Today, Republicans are fretting and Democrats are celebrating. Isn't that peculiar? I think so. I think it's a sign that all this talk about enduring majorities is kind of an exercise in futility.

I'll put this another way. Brownstein writes:

Ten or even five years ago, few Democrats envisioned that their party would attract the coalition of voters that actually elected Barack Obama and the Democratic House and Senate majorities last year. Even now, many Democrats still don't acknowledge how much their modern coalition differs from their historic image of the party.

I'll do that one better. "Ten or even five years" before Bush's reelection in 2004 - few analysts would have predicted that the Republican party's voting coalition would look amazingly like Bill Clinton's, sampling heavily from rural Southern whites and Hispanics. And then, who would have ever thought that many of those marginal Clinton-Bush voters would actually stick with the GOP in a year of a Democratic blowout like 2008? In light of all the recent changes in the parties' coalitions - how on earth can anybody know what the political world will like like in "ten or even five years?"

Update: Ron Brownstein emails to object to Sean's and my characterization of his argument from 2004. He writes:

[M]y argument was that Bush's consolidation of the red places gave Republicans a thumb-on-the-scale advantage over Democrats, but I was always conscious of Bush's failure even at his apex to meaningfully broaden his party's base. In parallel, I did argue that Democrats had to reach beyond their traditional blue enclaves. But it seems to me exactly what they have done, both at the Congressional and presidential level, while the Republican reach, both demographically and geographically, has narrowed in a way that seems evidence of more than just a short-term backlash against Bush.

-Jay Cost

Why Can't Obama Stop "Renegade" Democrats?

That question informs this recent story in Politico, which opens:

He's riding high in the polls among his fellow Democrats, but President Barack Obama's political sway within his own party is about to be tested.

Two House Democrats, Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania and Carolyn Maloney of New York, are poised to defy the unambiguous wishes of Obama and challenge incumbent senators of their own party.

Both indicated to POLITICO that they were likely to run -- and would do so regardless of what Obama said...

Asked directly if a plea from Obama would make any difference, Sestak shook his head and said: "No."...

The two races illustrate the risks for Obama, or any president, in trying to play local kingmaker -- namely, the very real possibility that no matter how popular he is, he may not be able bend every contest to his wishes and that by trying to do so, he risks being defied by his own party.

So, let's answer that title question.

At first blush, it seems pretty tricky. The President's popularity is still 60+. Democrats in Congress follow his lead. And so on. He should be able to stop them, right?

That view depends, I think, on an erroneous understanding of the contemporary American political party. If we were to sketch it, it might look like this:

CW Party.jpg

I've labeled this the "CW" Party because I think this is the implicit view contained in the conventional wisdom. It's seen as a straightforward hierarchy, running from the President and his national committee at the top, down to the local parties and candidates. By this schema, Obama should be able to stop Sestak and Maloney, as he sits above them in the hierarchy.

The American political party does not look like this today. And, for that matter, it's never looked like this.

At one point, the party resembled what political scientists have called a "truncated pyramid," something like this:

Truncated Pyramid Party.jpg

The old party system was dominated by the state parties - if we were to label it in time, we might say that this structure lasted from roughly 1828 to 1972. There was nobody above the state parties, nobody to boss them around. The national party committees merely hosted the national conventions, where the state parties came to barter and bargain about who would be the next presidential nominee. Indeed, in elections past (particularly before and after the Civil War), many incumbent presidents were not even given re-nomination from the parties!

This old system was not replaced with the "CW Party" depicted above. Instead, the current thinking on the "new" political parties looks something like this:

New American Party.jpg

Joseph Schlesinger, a political scientist from Michigan State, was the first to come up with this idea - and it's since been adopted as the theoretical foundation of the contemporary party, at least in the electoral campaign. When we start talking about the role of the party in Congress, we move away from this and toward the idea that the contemporary party is like a legislative cartel. So, we're limiting ourselves here to talk about the party in elections.

What this depicts is a series of candidate loci. In other words, the party exists around individual campaigns for office. So, within each circle would be the candidate, his donors, strategists, die-hard followers, and so on. Each candidate is in charge of his own locus - implying that, at its core, the contemporary American political party is disconnected. The lines connecting some loci to others indicate lines of coordination - the ways in which candidates of the same party work together to obtain victory. This might be the sharing of dollars or polling information, coordinating on strategy, and so on. There are lines connecting some loci but not others because coordination is not handed down from on high. Instead, coordination depends on each candidate's evaluation of his/her own interests, and how it would be useful to interact with other candidates. These days, the electoral context is such that coordination tends to be very high - and it is facilitated by the national parties (the national committees and the congressional campaign committees). However, that does not alter the fundamental feature that this picture captures: individual candidates stand largely on their own.

This helps answer the title question. The Presidency is a very powerful office - and this President, with his popularity being as great as it is, is a very powerful one. However, he is still constrained by the existing political system, which on the electoral level looks like those disconnected loci. It really does not matter how high his job approval goes, candidates still rise and fall on their own because that's the way the system is set up. The President could possibly have some sway at the margins by suggesting to other, loyal candidates that they not coordinate with the renegades, and that they instead coordinate with the loyalists. Indeed, he'll probably do this. However, that is not necessarily enough to stop the renegades. If they can can acquire sufficient resources, absent that coordination, they can still mount potent challenges.

My sense is that both Sestak and Maloney will be able to do that. They have access to sufficient dollars to build a substantial campaign organization, and they both have compelling arguments to make against the incumbents. In all likelihood, the President can help make sure that Specter and Gillibrand are sufficiently financed - but they probably would have been, anyway.

On this page, I often refer to our electoral system being "candidate centered." The above picture is a graphical depiction of my thinking on the matter, and the President's inability to stop Sestak and Maloney is a great example of the implication of the contemporary system.

-Jay Cost

Mike Murphy's Strange Math

Mike Murphy's new column in Time recycles many of the arguments proffered by Democrats who have asserted that their majority will be enduring. I've dealt with these at length, and rather than rehash them here, I'll point you in the direction of my essays on the subject. See here, here, and here.

Instead, I want to point out the peculiar argument that's contained in this snippet:

Despairing Republican friends have been asking me what I think we should do to rebuild the GOP and begin our certain and inevitable comeback. My answer disappoints them: "Build an ark."

I say this because I've made a career out of counting votes, and the numbers tell a clear story; the demographics of America are changing in a way that is deadly for the Republican Party as it exists today. A GOP ice age is on the way....

It was a huge shock to the GOP when Barack Obama won Republican Indiana last year. The bigger news was how he did it. Latino voters delivered the state. Exit polls showed that they provided Obama with a margin of more than 58,000 votes in a state he carried by a slim 26,000 votes. That's right, GOP, you've entered a brave new world ruled by Latino Hoosiers, and you're losing.

Of course, it was just four years ago that George W. Bush pulled in a historically large number of Latinos to the Republican Party. The exit poll had it at 44%. Some thought that was overestimated, and other estimates had it around 39%. Either way, a significant pull. This is something that seems to me to be worth mentioning when making an argument about the enduring Democratic majority. Yet it rarely is.

Anyway, Murphy's math is correct on Latinos in Indiana. The exit poll estimate has them giving Obama a plurality of something like 58,000 votes. However, his conclusion - "a brave new world ruled by Latino Hoosiers" - is completely overdrawn, which I think is characteristic of these demographics-mean-GOP-doom arguments.

The reason is...drumroll please...white voters. Shock of shocks! Who would have thought that white voters would make the biggest difference in Indiana? Yet, I can assure you that it's true! In 2004, John Kerry won 34% of the white vote. In 2008, Obama won 45%. That's an 11-point improvement, and it made a significant difference. McCain won about 218k more white Hoosiers than Obama did. Bush won 681k more whites than Kerry.

So, Hispanics moved. But so also did white voters, and their movement was much more substantial.

Like I said, I'm not terribly interested in rehashing all the various arguments for why the enduring Democratic majority argument is problematic. I've done it already. I'll only say that Murphy's argument is consistent with what I've seen many times. The proponents of this hypothesis end up putting forward numbers that somehow don't tell the full story. If it's allocating all non-white voters to the Democrats, doing an apples-to-oranges comparison of 1988 to 2008, ignoring recent elections that cut against the hypothesis, inventing ad hoc psychological concepts to explain falsifying evidence away, or whatever - there often seems to be something a little askew in the presentation of this argument. That's not to imply that anybody is cooking the books. Far from it! I have great respect for Murphy, as well as those with whom I've argued on this subject. And to a certain extent, I think they're on to something. Maybe the trick is how do you approach the data. Do you do so looking to test your hypothesis, or to find instances that support it? The latter is a dangerous endeavor, for in a data set as large as American national elections (!), you can always find something, somewhere that appears to support your theory. But that's not how data should be used to evaluate arguments.

For what it's worth, my take is that this theory relies far too heavily on the concept of realignment - something that political scientists have begun to move beyond, and for good reason. I think realignment is a highly problematic category. Almost inevitably, the data needs to be squeezed here and stretched there to fit into the proper form.

One final objection to Murphy's piece. He writes:

In 1980, Reagan beat Jimmy Carter by 10 points. If that contest were held again today, under the current demographics of the electorate per exit polls, the election would be much closer, with Reagan probably winning by about 3 points.

I object to this type of analysis - re-running old elections with contemporary demography to argue for some new alignment. I've seen this before. The problem is that each candidate's share per demographic group is locked in the past while the size of the group is updated for today. This is arbitrary! For instance, Reagan won about 60% of the two-party vote among whites that year. Carter won about 40%. A lot of Carter's white support came from the South - where he ran extremely close in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Plus, he won Georgia and West Virginia. Since 1980, all of these states have shifted rightward. Other states in our fine Republic have shifted leftward, and the preferences of different types of voters have shifted as well. So, if we were to rerun the exact same election in 2008, the candidates' shares of each group would surely be different, in ways we cannot predict. So, maybe if we re-ran 1980, Reagan's overall lead would have dropped. Maybe it would have increased. Who knows? This is why I think this intellectual exercise has little analytical payoff.

-Jay Cost

More on the RNC's Troubles

I have written several times on this blog that comparing the RNC to the DNC is a bad way to evaluate Michael Steele. The RNC Chairman has enjoyed some political cover in the last few months because pundits are inclined to make this comparison. Even as his outfit's fundraising is near the bottom of its 10-year trend, he's still out-raising his rival Tim Kaine over at the DNC - so he appears to be strong.

But, for many reasons, I do not think this comparison is valid. Obama's recent fundraiser in L.A. is one very good reason why. This is from the Hill:

Even as he conceded there is still much hard work to do, President Obama was in a boastful mood Wednesday night, telling a star-studded crowd at a fundraising dinner that he "would put these first four months up against any prior administration since FDR."

The president, speaking to a dinner that included Hollywood A-listers like Kiefer Sutherland, Marisa Tomei, Jamie Foxx, Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg, lauded the legislation he has signed since taking office but added that he is "not satisfied." [snip]

The celebrity dinner, which cost couples $30,400 to attend, was followed by a larger, lower-dollar concert that all told raised between $3 million and $4 million for the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

A single dinner, and the President pulls in $3 to $4 million for the DNC. Support for the President is so deep in some (deep-pocketed) corners of this country, I'd reckon the President can do this again and again and again. I'm sure he will - and those praising Steele's fundraising "success" to date should keep this mind. Two such dinners, and Obama will have handed the DNC more money than the RNC raised through the entire month of April.

This is why I expect that, unless Michael Steele really turns up the juice on the fundraising, the DNC is going to out-raise the RNC by the time the 2010 midterm cycle is finished. That would be a first. It's still early, and Steele could pick up the pace - but the fact remains that his organization is behind the historical curve right now. The party cannot afford an RNC that is not pulling in its usual, enormous take. To stay competitive with the DNC, my guess is that it will have to have a record haul for a midterm.

PS: For those of you who, like me, think a party chairman has better things to do than host a radio show - you'll be interested to know that Steele is still doing that. He again guest-hosted Bill Bennett's radio show this morning. And while he didn't bash Romney and the evangelical Christians who voted against him - he did manage to box the party in on its response to the Sotomayor nomination:

In what seemed like an effort to distance the party from claims that Sotomayor is "racist" and an "Affirmative Action" pick, Steele repeatedly said that Republicans should be hailing the historic nature of Obama's pick.

"I'm excited that a Hispanic woman is in this position," Steele said. He added that instead of "slammin' and rammin'" on Sotomayor, Republicans should "acknowledge" the "historic aspect" of the pick and make a "cogent, articulate argument" against her for purely substantive reasons.

Steele warned that because of the attacks, "we get painted as a party that's against the first Hispanic woman" picked for the Supreme Court.

Mr. Chairman - crazy suggestion for you. Instead of spending your Friday morning fielding calls on a talk show, why don't you pick up your phone and try to find the RNC the cash it'll need to compete next year? Or call up that marginal, would-be candidate one more time to talk him into running - perhaps by promising him the support from all the donors you're about to call. This task might also be referred to as...your job description, which does not include posturing against your party for the satisfaction of your own vanity/ego while guest-hosting a talk show and serving as the party's chief media whore pundit.

Get it together, dude.

-Jay Cost

More on the Recent Changes in Party Identification

Recently, Pew published an interesting graphic on historical party identification that enables us to continue our discussion of partisan affiliation through time. This is the picture that Pew presents.

Pew Partisanship.gif

It's important to note that prior to 1989, the party identification data is from Gallup. After 1989, it is from Pew. This is an interesting picture - and it generally squares with what we know about the partisan battles over the last 75 years. Importantly, it does not track ideology, which makes a huge difference. In particular, 1946 to 1964 is a period of Democratic dominance, but not necessarily liberal dominance - certainly not in the Congress, where a coalition of Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats was often able to thwart northern liberals. I've discussed this before, and my general sense of the post-war period is that it is best understood as one of ideological balance, with discrete, short-lived periods of liberal "breakthroughs," like 1964-1966.

Now, let's compare this data to the exit poll data we reviewed last week. We'll also include Gallup's partisanship data from 1989 forward. All of this is contained in the following chart:

Gallup, Pew and Exit Party ID, 1972-2008.jpg

There are three salient points about this graph:

Changes in Gallup and Pew Generally Track Exit Poll Changes. All three tick upwards during fat times for the Republican Party, most notably around Reagan's reelection in 1984. Lean times show a tick back downwards. This is as should be expected.

Gallup and Pew "Over-Dramatize" The Exit Poll. Slight changes in the exit polls tend to be more dramatic in the Gallup and Pew samples. This is especially apparent if we look at 1984-2004. The exit polls show only modest changes - with Republican self-identifiers ticking down to 35% from 36%, then up to 37% in 2004. Meanwhile, Gallup and Pew show a great deal more variability, each moving about 5% over the period. This is consistent with a point I made last week. GOP self-identification might have dropped 10+ point in recent media polls, but only 5 points in the last exit poll. This is not necessarily good news for the GOP, as fewer changes in exit poll party identification indicate that the actual electorate has a more stable partisan orientation. This means that ground lost might not easily be ground regained.

Gallup and Pew Consistently Underestimate Republican Identifiers Relative to the Exit Poll. Pew tends to be more pessimistic about the GOP's standing than Gallup, but both always show fewer Republicans than the exit polls. The difference is typically 5 to 7 points. What could account for this? I can think of two explanations.

(a) The exit polls are a snapshot of party identification on a single day, while the Gallup and Pew numbers are an average of the whole year. In 2008, both Gallup and Pew showed the GOP at its strongest point shortly before Election Day. Gallup generally showed the GOP stronger in the fall of 2004 than in the Spring or Summer of that year. [Unfortunately, I was unable to locate monthly or quarterly party identification numbers for prior presidential election years.] Why might this be? Some subset of "natural" Republican partisans might only return to their political home when the campaign begins in earnest, around Labor Day. If so, an annual average of party identification - or one that looks at out-years - might systematically underestimate GOP strength relative to where it is on Election Day.

(b) Non-voters are less likely to identify themselves as Republicans than voters, and they are included in the Gallup and Pew numbers. In fact, recent turnout - which is at its highest in some time - is still less than 60% of the voting age population, which means that about 40% of the Gallup and Pew samples in recent years should be non-voters. In a year like 1996, non-voters will constitute more than half of these samples. According to the National Election Study, non-voters are not as inclined to see themselves as Republicans as voters (on a five point partisanship scale: strong Democrat, weak Democrat, Independent, weak Republican, strong Republican). In fact, from 1972 to 2004, the average difference in Republican identification between non-voters and voters was fourteen points. This trend is muted on the Democratic side, as a good portion of non-voters are inclined to see themselves as "weak" Democrats.

I think the take home point from all of this is fairly clear. The Gallup, Pew, and other media pollsters tracking party identification offer data that is of real value - but it has to be interpreted with care. There are big, consistent differences between media polling data on partisanship throughout the year versus the Exit Poll, which is a better metric for partisanship on the day that it matters, Election Day.

Just as Gallup, Pew, and others "over-dramatize" changes in party identification - I think the recent meme on the decline and fall of the contemporary GOP has been "oversold." That's not to say that the party is not in a rough spot at the moment, but just that the analysis by many pundits is like a good steak that's been cooked just a bit too long.

-Jay Cost

On the Bouncing Party ID Numbers

Gallup put out its latest numbers on party identification, and the results might have surprised some.

Gallup Partisanship.gif

Check out how bouncy partisan identification is in the Gallup numbers - not just in the picture, but in the entire history going back through 2004. Next, compare these numbers to the exit polls on Republican identifiers since 1972.

Republican Voters By Year.jpg

The GOP suffered a decline in self-identified Republicans in 1976, as Watergate and the recession pushed people to Jimmy Carter and the Democrats. They came back some in 1980, but it was not until 1984 that the GOP rebounded to the level it enjoyed in 1972, when Nixon was re-elected. From 1984 to 2004, it was pretty stable, during good years and bad for the party - but in 2008 there was a five point drop-off. This is less than what the party suffered in 1972-1976, but it is still the biggest decline in party identification for the GOP in more than thirty years.

So, the movement you'll see in 25 years of exit polling can be found in just 25 days of Gallup polling. What are the implications of this contrast?

First, I think it's a sign that the conventional wisdom that the GOP has shrunk dramatically since Election Day has been oversold. Of course, I thought that before I saw these numbers. Pundits pushing that story line were inclined to cite the AP, Pew, or CBS/NYT poll - even though Rasmussen, Survey USA and Fox News had shown insubstantial drop-offs in party identification relative to the 2008 exit poll.

Second, I do not think the party's recent improvement in Gallup is a sign that the GOP is "on the mend." Return to the exit polling, and note how little it bounces around. This implies that the 5-point drop the party suffered between 2004 and 2008 - while small compared to the media polling - cannot easily be overcome. It took Reagan's 1984 landslide to undo the damage done to Republican self-identification by Watergate. Five points in a May Gallup survey of adults might be easy to win back, but who cares? Elections are held in November and are decided by voters. They swing much less, implying that any drops a party suffers with them could be lasting.

Third, I think this highlights the difference between voters and non-voters. It wasn't too long ago that the Democrats had an eye-poppingly large lead in party identification. Now, Gallup has another eye-popping result, this time showing the two at parity. To connect the two divergent results, there's been a radical "correction" in the party ID numbers even though very little has happened in the political world.

A lot of this could be chalked up to the presence of non-voters in the Gallup surveys. The latter are excluded from the exit polls, but they should make up about 40% of the Gallup samples. Non-voters have a lot of important differences with voters. They are less likely to express much interest in politics, watch political programs, read newspapers frequently, pay much attention in general, and so on. Additionally, non-voters are more likely to place themselves in the middle of an ideological scale whereas you're likely to find voters clustering around the conservative and liberal poles.

Consider the following graphs. They depict the "feeling thermometers" for George W. Bush among voters and non-voters, according to the 2004 National Election Study. This was conducted in 2004, so obviously feelings for President Bush have changed quite a bit since then. The intent here is simply to illustrate a point about the differences between voters and non-voters. The feeling thermometer is basically a question that asks respondents to rate a person, organization, or idea on a 0-100 scale, with 0 being negative and 100 being positive.

Feelings for Bush.jpg

As you can see, voters in 2004 had highly polarized views of George W. Bush. However, non-voters inhabited the middle range, with a slight tilt toward the positive. You'll note also that fewer non-voters were willing to give an opinion on the matter. This graph does not show it - but individual voters who placed Bush high on the thermometer were likely to place Kerry low (and vice-versa) while many non-voters were inclined to put both in the middle.

All in all, non-voters often lack strong feelings on political subjects (be they ideological or personality-based), and they are also less likely to pay close attention to politics. This might make a difference in the polls on party identification. Recall the generally positive coverage of the President's first hundred days, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs:

Fifty-eight percent of the Obama evaluations were positive on the ABC, CBS and NBC broadcasts, compared with 33 percent positive in the comparable period of Bush's tenure and 44 percent positive for Clinton. (Evaluations by officials from the administration or political parties were not counted.)

On Fox News, by contrast, only 13 percent of the assessments of Obama were positive on the first half of Bret Baier's "Special Report," which most resembles a newscast. The president got far better treatment in the New York Times, where 73 percent of the assessments in front-page pieces were positive.

A striking contrast: Obama's personal qualities drew more favorable coverage than his policies, with 32 percent of the sound bites positive on CBS, 31 percent positive on NBC and 8 percent positive on Fox.

So, the little information non-voters acquire about politics has thus been quite partial to the Democratic party in recent months. Combine this with their their lack of strong feelings about many political subjects - then toss in the GOP's inability to control the agenda in Washington - and this could take us a long way to explaining the drop-off for the GOP among non-voters in some previous surveys. Meanwhile, as the new car smell of Obama's presidency has faded, perhaps those otherwise inclined to the GOP have returned to calling themselves Republican (although I'd note that the recent Fox poll, of registered voters, shows no change from the previous one).

Before I get angry emails accusing me of irrational GOP bullishness, let me repeat: I think the electoral implications of these trends are basically nil. I have virtually no interest in the week-to-week movement of party identification - be they good for the Democrats, the Republicans, the Communists, or the Martians. I'm only discussing it today because other people have been talking about it.

There is academic or scholarly benefit in understanding how non-voters view themselves on the partisanship scale - but the electoral consequences are, by definition, zero. Ditto for actual voters, so long as we're some 19 months from the next election. I don't think it matters much what they call themselves now. It matters in November of an election year - after the two parties have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on lavish conventions and television ads to dominate the political discourse and bring their wayward partisans back to the fold. Until then, you have to expect partisanship to bounce up, then bounce down, then up, then down. Is it really a shock that during a Democratic President's honeymoon period, the numbers for the GOP would bounce especially low? Before any dramatic conclusions are drawn from one particular bounce, it is vital to remember that, in the last 25 years, the exit poll numbers on Election Day have always landed within a very narrow band of results.

The real problem for the GOP now is not that the previous AP poll shows it at less than 20% of respondents - although that extreme result makes for good copy for members of the D.C. punditocracy. The real problem is that the last exit poll showed it at 32%, down 5 points from 2004. That puts its party identification at the low end of the historical range, and previous years indicate that it might take several cycles to overcome such a drop-off.

-Jay Cost

Another Average (At Best) Month for the RNC

On Friday, Chris Cillizza had the early scoop on the national committees' fundraising hauls:

The Republican National Committee raised almost $5.8 million in April and ended the month with $24.4 million on hand, a rare bright spot for a committee whose chairman -- Michael Steele -- has struggled badly in his first few months on the job. Through the first four months of 2009, the RNC has raised $23.4...When Steele was first elected RNC Chairman in January, one of the major concerns in the professional political class was whether he could raise the sort of money to keep the RNC competitive. Interestingly, fundraising has been Steele's strength to date while his skills as a spokesman -- thought to be his strong suit -- have betrayed him time and again.

I don't agree with Cillizza's conclusion. Instead, this month seems to me to be quite below average for the RNC. Consider the following graph:

RNC Graph.jpg

[Note that this graph excludes soft money, which was permitted prior to 2003. Additionally, Cillizza's figure probably excludes the $7 million or so that John McCain transferred to the RNC earlier this year. That actually improves the comparison from year-to-year, as no previous transfer in the above chart has ever exceeded $1 million.]

As you can see, there was a jump in the RNC's fundraising hauls around the beginning of this decade - and a big slide for the most recent data point. Clearly, 2009 is the worst performance to date the RNC has had since 1999 - and even then the party had access to soft money dollars. Importantly, the RNC is well off the mark established in 2005, the last year that was the beginning of a midterm election cycle.

We cannot be critical of Michael Steele for these numbers...at least not yet. There are too many factors that could be weighing down the RNC's fundraising that are outside his control: the weak economy, the tough election last cycle, the inability of the party to introduce its agenda in Congress, and so on. Any of these might be keeping the RNC from raising what it otherwise would. That being said, we cannot draw the conclusion that Cillizza does. If Steele cannot be blamed for these below average numbers - he can't be praised, either. Indeed, it might be partially his fault that the numbers have been so weak. It's too soon to say, and Republicans should continue to watch the committee closely.

Politicos like to compare the two national committees head-to-head, as Cillizza does in the above column. Moving forward, I'd suggest that this is the wrong way to judge the RNC. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the DNC had a horrible couple of fundraising cycles under Howard Dean. It might take it a while to rebuild its fundraising base. Second, Tim Kaine is serving as governor of Virginia until next year. This limits his ability to raise money. Third, the Democratic congressional campaign committees were stronger than their counterparts on the Republican side in the last cycle. Indeed, through March of this year the Democratic congressional committees had already outraised the GOP committees by $10 million. The GOP has relied on the RNC to make up the money gap - which implies that matching the DNC is not enough. Fourth, the DNC can make use of this guy:


His capacity to fundraise for the Democratic Party will be impressive. When he decides it's time, the DNC will raise plenty.

Bottom line: the RNC's subpar fundraising haul might be reducible to factors outside of Steele's control. But they might not be. It's too soon to say, which means Republicans should keep a close eye on future RNC receipts. In the meantime, it's best to avoid making comparisons to the DNC.

-Jay Cost

It's Time for Michael Steele To Resign

On Friday, Michael Steele guest hosted Bill Bennett's radio show - and he got into a conversation with a caller on the subject of Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy. This caller - "Jay" (not me!) - had suggested that Mitt Romney could have won the general election, but that liberals had co-opted the Republican nomination by backing John McCain.

This is how Michael Steele responded (h/t Think Progress):

Yeah, but let me ask you. Ok, Jay, I'm there with you. But remember, it was the base that rejected Mitt because of his switch on pro-life, from pro-choice to pro-life. It was the base that rejected Mitt because it had issues with Mormonism. It was the base that rejected Mitch, Mitt, because they thought he was back and forth and waffling on those very economic issues you're talking about. So, I mean, I hear what you're saying, but before we even got to a primary vote, the base had made very clear they had issues with Mitt because if they didn't, he would have defeated John McCain in those primaries in which he lost.

This is a very unfortunate comment, and I think it demonstrates Steele's key weakness as party chairman.

But first, let's be clear. On the merits, I think that Michael Steele has some valid points here. I discussed both issues at length when I was blogging on the Republican nomination campaign last year.

However, none of these comments should be coming from the Chairman of the Republican National Committee.

On the issue of flip-flopping - all signs point to Mitt Romney having an interest in a future presidential candidacy. He might very well succeed where he failed last cycle, becoming the 2012 Republican nominee. That would make these comments quite unfortunate. One could imagine the DNC working this into a general election campaign ad. The kicker is pretty obvious: "Mitt Romney's own boss doesn't think he's honest. Why should you?"

Second, the RNC Chairman has no business talking about a tension that exists within his party, unless the goal is to minimize it. American political parties are broad-based coalitions that seek to unify diverse groups under one banner. The views of Mormons and evangelical Christians have a lot of overlaps, which makes them political allies. However, they disagree on matters of importance to both groups. Typically, these disagreements are rarely discussed in political venues, so their tensions are usually irrelevant for the GOP. It follows that the GOP has no interest in bringing these disagreements forward. It's only going to annoy Mormons and evangelicals, and potentially pit them against one another.

Additionally, it's bad for the party's image. If you're trying to woo marginal voters, you don't want to emphasize the fact that groups within the party have conflicts. Think Progress headlined its clip of Steele as this: "Steele Calls GOP Base Bigoted, Says They 'Rejected' Romney Because They Have 'Issues With Mormonism.'" Republicans should hope that the mainstream press does not run with Steele's comments, as it will only forward the "GOP is shrinking and narrow" meme, which he has actually helped along in the past.

I doubt very much that the party will suffer any long run damage from his most recent comments. The problem is: if he will say something this now, what's to stop him from flapping his gums when it could do the party real harm? What if, for instance, he mouths off one night backstage at the 2012 convention in front of a Politico reporter? That'd be a great story for the party during it's crucial week of self-promotion!

Newt Gingrich recently defended Steele against those RNC members who are challenging him:

Steele is a huge shock because he's different. He's not just different because he's African American. He's different because he's a free spirit. He's used to saying what he thinks. He's controversial. He has enormous energy. He has great self-confidence.

For a pundit or radio personality, being a "free spirit" and "saying what he thinks" are assets. However, they are liabilities in an RNC Chairman. Ideally speaking, the chairman of a national committee should be boring, bland, and say only what will maximize contributions. There is a reason why your average party chairman is a lousy television guest who rarely strays from the talking points: that is what's good for the party.

Comments like Steele's do not help the Republican Party in any way, shape, manner, or form. The only effect they can possibly have is negative. And if said in the wrong place at the wrong time, they will have a negative effect. I think it is a great thing for a political party to have somebody who calls it like he sees it, even if those opinions don't sit well with his own side. My favorite political book of all time is John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, so I'm well versed in the value of freewheeling, open debate. However, it's no good for the party chairman to be a controversialist. Considering that he said what he said on Friday after all the controversy he has generated - it's pretty clear that he can't help himself.

The party cannot afford to have its national committee chairman doubling as a controversial pundit. It's time for Michael Steele to resign.

-Jay Cost

Michael Steele: Half a Chairman

I've been following the travails of Michael Steele for a few months now, and I'd say the latest news is pretty gosh darned huge. From the Washington Times:

Capitulating to critics on the Republican National Committee, embattled Republican Party Chairman Michael S. Steele has signed a secret pact agreeing to controls and restraints on how he spends hundreds of millions of dollars in party funds and contracts, The Washington Times has learned.

The "good governance" agreement revives checks and balances Mr. Steele resisted implementing for RNC contracts, fees for legal work and other expenditures that were not renewed after the 2008 presidential nominating contest.

The agreement, proposed by several current and former RNC officials, goes further, making 33-year RNC veteran Jay Banning, who was fired by Mr. Steele along with his deputy last month, an on-call adviser to the RNC treasurer. Mr. Banning was seen as a trusted liaison to RNC members critical of Mr. Steele's tenure and financial management.

From the looks of it, the outlines of the agreement restore some old rules that had expired at the end of last year. Moreoever, Steele's opponents have also managed to put Jay Banning (the RNC's chief financial officer until he was fired by Steele) in a watchdog position over Steele. This is an agreement that Steele initially opposed. According to the Times, he had this to say in an email to RNC members a few weeks ago:

"I have just returned from an overseas trip to learn that the five of you have developed a scheme to transfer the RNC chairman's authority to the treasurer and the executive committee," Mr. Steele wrote in an e-mail he sent to Randy Pullen, the RNC's elected treasurer, and Blake Hall, the committee's general counsel, as well as to three former RNC officers.

In the e-mail, obtained by The Washington Times, Mr. Steele argues that he always has embraced the "transparency, competitive bidding and good governance" that Mr. Pullen and the others said their resolution aims to achieve...

"It is of course not lost on me that each of you worked tirelessly down to the last minute in an effort to stop me from becoming chairman," Mr. Steele wrote.

And yet now he is accepting the agreement. What is this all about?

It's impossible to know for sure what is going on. The party organizations are semi-private, and simply not required to tell us exactly what they're up to. Nevertheless, from the looks of it, Steele's early decision to fire every RNC employee rubbed some RNC members the wrong way; they wanted to get greater controls over the new chairman. Steele - perhaps facing a no-confidence vote later this month if he refused - finally gave them what they wanted.

Is this the end of Steele's trouble? My gut tells me no. Frankly, I think that if the RNC is this worried about Steele - they should just get rid of him. The party's position in government is now extremely tenuous. The 2010 midterm is of critical importance to the GOP, and the RNC is the chief source of party funds. There is little margin for error. Can the party afford a hamstrung chairman whom members have little confidence in? One can't help but wonder if these half-measures will make things worse rather than better.

-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

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

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

Public Financing Is Dead

In a recent interview with the Washington Times, John McCain made the following point:

Sen. John McCain, an architect of sweeping campaign-finance reform who got walloped by a presidential candidate armed with more than $750 million, predicts that no one will ever again accept federal matching funds to run for the nation's highest office.

"No Republican in his or her right mind is going to agree to public financing. I mean, that's dead. That is over. The last candidate for president of the United States from a major party that will take public financing was me," the Arizona Republican told The Washington Times.

The subtext of McCain's comment is a criticism of the Obama campaign. Much of this is valid, as the President explicitly promised to negotiate a deal with Senator McCain on public financing, but never did. However, the death of public financing cannot be pinned solely, or even mostly, on President Obama. It was a long time coming. In fact, I'd wager that some of the other '08 Republican contenders would have refused public financing if they had won the GOP nomination.

Ultimately, the big trouble with public financing is that it is not keeping up with the realities of electoral politics. There are two specific problems.

The first problem is timing. Senator McCain does not mention it (at least in the clip provided by the Washington Times), but one half of public financing has been finished for eight years. Presidential candidates are entitled to public financing in the primaries in the form of "matching funds." However, there is a catch. The government matches a portion of the money you receive from individual donors, but it also places a spending cap on you for the primary seasion, which does not technically end until the conventions.

This greatly damaged Bob Dole in 1996. Dole was stuck in a tough primary battle against Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, and Lamar Alexander - and to win, he had to spend through most of his primary funds. This left him running on a bare-bones budget for months. Meanwhile, President Clinton was flush with cash, thanks to the fact that he was unopposed in his primary. The DNC, labor groups, and the Clinton campaign spent the spring and summer blasting Dole, who was unable to offer a response.

The primary financing system fails to account for the fact that the general election campaign now begins well before the conventions. After Dole was shellacked because of the system's antiquated notion of the general campaign, it was only a matter of time until the serious contenders balked at primary funds. George W. Bush refused them in 2000 and 2004 - as did John Kerry.

The second problem is quantity. John McCain - who also declined financing for the primaries - received $84 million in public money at the beginning of September. This is a paltry sum compared to how much a presidential candidate can potentially raise. To appreciate this, consider the following chart, which tracks fundraising by the national party committees back to 1988.

Fundraising by National Party Committees.jpg

What is really amazing about this chart is that eliminationg soft money in 2004 did not reduce party fundraising. It slowed down its rate of growth, for sure, but in 2004 both parties raised more than they did in the last presidential cycle where soft money was allowed (2000).

You can chalk this growth up to increased party capacity to raise cash. The parties have become much more professional over the last twenty years, and thus more able to raise dollars. They also have access to new communications technology like the Internet. Another factor is likely the polarization of the electorate, especially among political elites who have the money to donate to politics. Now more than any time since the Great Depression, there are clear ideological differences between the parties. This distinctiveness gives people a greater stake in the outcome of the election - and possibly an enhanced incentive to contribute to the cause.

I'd also note that this chart only captures a fraction of the total federal dollars raised. Factor in the hundreds of millions of dollars raised by candidates for the House and Senate - which have also been on the rise over the years - and we can appreciate just how many potential dollars are out there. Above all, consider that Obama and Senator Clinton raised a combined $880 million during the 2008 campaign, and yet that did not stop the Democratic Party from smashing its previous fundraising records. Bottom line: the parties have found many new sources of money over the years, and the evidence implies that there are sources yet to be found.

So, why would a presidential candidate accept $85 million when s/he instead has the opportunity to raise hundreds of millions? Only a guy like John McCain - who had a hand in creating the current finance regime and who was honor bound to participate - was so obliged.

Ultimately, these two problems point to the same malady: the public financing system is outdated. It has not kept up with the evolving dynamics of the electoral campaign. The basics of public financing were created during a different era of presidential campaigning (via the 1974 amendments to the Federal Elections Campaign Act). The electoral campaign has changed drastically since then, but the financing system remains essentially the same. Its inability to fit the times has been evident for the last fifteen years or so - thus, it was only a matter of time before it would finally be discarded.

Until Congress updates the basic structure of public financing and/or the system is made mandatory, presidential candidates will skip it. It is so antiquated that it no longer serves their needs. A candidate who follows it will surely be made worse off if his opponent does not.

-Jay Cost

Obama's Liberal Moment

Last week, the Washington Post ran a front page story on the Obama administration's legislative strategy.

Senior members of the Obama administration are pressing lawmakers to use a shortcut to drive the president's signature initiatives on health care and energy through Congress without Republican votes...

The shortcut, known as "budget reconciliation," would allow Obama's health and energy proposals to be rolled into a bill that cannot be filibustered, meaning Democrats could push it through the Senate with 51 votes, instead of the usual 60. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both used the tactic to win deficit-reduction packages, while George W. Bush used it to push through his signature tax cuts.

Yet Senator Obama writes this in The Audacity of Hope:

There's an instructive story about the negotiations surrounding the first round of Bush tax cuts, when Karl Rove invited a Democratic senator over to the White House to discuss the senator's potential support for the President's package...[The senator] suggested a few changes that would moderate the package's impact.

"Make these changes," the senator told Rove, "and not only will I vote for the bill, but I guarantee you'll get seventy votes out of the Senate."

"We don't want seventy votes," Rove reportedly replied. "We want fifty-one."

Recently, I noted my concern that the President is willing to engage in tactics he made a name opposing. This Washington Post story indicates this is not limited to rhetoric, but extends to legislative maneuvers as well.

Why has the President adopted such a highly partisan posture, one he was decrying just three years ago?

The following graph might help answer this question. It outlines the median ideological scores of the House and Senate from 1932 to 2008 (-1 is liberal, 1 is conservative). It runs from FDR to George W. Bush. It shades periods blue for liberal government (both chambers have a liberal tilt and there is a Democratic President), red for conservative government (both chambers have a conservative tilt and there is a Republican President), and purple for an ideological mix (one chamber or the President is of a different ideological bent than the others).

Ideological Scores.jpg

This graph likely understates the extent of ideologically mixed government. The median senator is not the critical vote in the upper chamber. Instead, the 60th (filibuster) senator is. Thus, practically speaking, the Senate has been more moderate than pictured here.

Notice the historical power of Southern Democrats. Though Democrats held the House from 1954 to 1994, an alliance between Republicans and Southern Democrats could often check liberals.

Clearly, "realignment" has some explanatory power, but it oversimplifies a great deal. Overall, there are not really extended spans of liberal or conservative government; instead they are more like moments, lasting a few cycles until they are "corrected" by the other side.

Scanning to the present day, we can appreciate why Senator Obama would plead for bipartisanship in The Audacity of Hope. That book was written during the most conservative government in more than 75 years. Additionally, the GOP seemed by then to have over-reached. Preaching the virtues of bipartisanship was smart politics for an ambitious Democratic pol in 2006.

But notice the leftward swing in that year's midterm, which was extended in the current Congress (not pictured in the graph). Add in a new Democratic President, and the country is now in another liberal moment.

Three observations about these moments are relevant.

They have been short. FDR's moment basically lasted six years - the longest of all. Johnson and Clinton's were extremely brief, followed by conservative "corrections."

They have not necessarily yielded policy innovations. FDR won major programmatic changes, as did Johnson. However, Carter had nothing to show for his moment, and Clinton had little.

They have been rare. Not reducible to the grand ideological march of history - they have been partially contingent on historical events, like the Great Depression and Watergate.

So, President Obama has a unique opportunity. He cannot presume that it will last long, that it will assuredly yield significant changes in policy, or that he'll have another chance.

Thus, bipartisanship is of little political use to him now. As a rallying cry against the Bush administration, which pulled the policy needle to the right, it was extremely helpful. However, not any more. When the "old categories" suddenly give you an opening, why "transcend" them? Why court the other side, which will only slow you down and moderate your programs? Instead, the politically savvy move is to do exactly what Obama has done: stuff bipartisanship, see how much you can squeeze out of Congress before the next "correction," and get your name into the history books.

I expect politicians of both parties to do this. Their commitment to bipartisanship is typically situational: they praise it when they're in the minority, then forget it when they're in the majority. Of course, Obama promised to be above politics as usual. That's why he pursued his party's nomination against Hillary Clinton, whose experience was greater but who had the "taint" of politics on her. Obama didn't have the taint, and assured us he never would.

So much for that.

-Jay Cost

Ross Douthat Weighs In

Ross Douthat blogged on my recent discussion with Ruy Teixeira, falling roughly between the two of us. He writes:

I'm on Teixeira's side insofar as it's possible to make predictions about the political future; I'm on Cost's insofar as it isn't...I think probabilities matter a little bit more than Cost allows. Even allowing for his caveats, if you were asked to pick which coalitions you'd rather have at the moment, based on demographic strength alone, you'd choose the Democratic coalition in a heartbeat. Not because we know what's going to happen, but because we don't - and a bet based on probabilities is better than a shot in the dark.

This is not precisely what my point is. I actually do have a prediction based on probabilities: continued two-party competition and roughly divided government over time. That's not a specific prediction for the next cycle - but it is not a "shot in the dark." That phrase implies that I don't have a sense of what to expect, which I do. It just happens to fall in the middle.

My argument is narrowly negative in that I have most recently been arguing against Teixeira's thesis. However, it is broadly positive in that I have written quite a bit about what to expect in the long run and have offered alternative ideas in contrast to "realignment" or "enduring majorities" (or whatever term one might prefer). This negative argument fits into the positive one. See here and here for my most recent assertions.

Sean Trende notes to me the difficulty in using demographic results to predict subsequent elections. "Demographics always look good when you are winning. What could possibly have been the demographic bright spot for Democrats in 1988? Yet they were just four years from renaissance." Sean also asks, what if one were to follow Douthat and predict the next winner based on the current winner? Since 1948, you'd go 7 for 15. Since 1968, you'd go 5 for 10. That's about how well you could expect to do via random, "shot in the dark" guessing.

-Jay Cost

A Note on the "New Progressive America"

My thanks to Ruy Teixeira for commenting on my response to his report. Seeing as how he has put up the overwhelming share of the effort here, it is appropriate to allow him the last word on the substance of our debate.

I do want to offer a clarification on my broader position, which was outlined in detail with Sean Trende here. Teixeira writes:

Cost may choose to believe it's of no real significance that growing demographic groups and areas of the country are strengthening progressives, while conservatives are holding their own only where America is stagnant and declining. He may even be able to convince conservatives that he is right. In doing so, however, is he doing them a disservice? The longer conservatives believe nothing has really changed, the longer they will resist doing what they need to do: change their positions, soften their ideology and move toward the new progressive center of American politics. After all, it may be a progressive center, but it's still the center. And eventually conservatives are going to have to deal with that.

My position is not that "nothing has really changed," and by implication that the country is still a center-right country. Similarly, I would not counsel conservatives to do nothing.

Instead, my position is this: American electoral politics is full of change. That is the principal reason I am generally skeptical of arguments about enduring majorities - left or right. There's just so much change in our electoral politics that an enduring majority is a highly problematic category.

I draw this conclusion based on five observations about the last forty years:

(1) The parties typically share control of the institutions of government.

(2) The longest time any party has held the presidency and the Congress together was four years. In both instances, subsequent electoral defeats were decisive and humiliating.

(3) Voters typically have low levels of political information, which makes it difficult to develop genuine ideology.

(4) The electorate as a whole is known to vary its preference on non-ideological factors, like the performance of the economy and the President's management of the government.

(5) The purpose of the political party is to acquire the majority. Historically, this has meant that the parties respond to setbacks, often by redrafting elements of their message.

I would not argue that there are not stable features in our electoral politics. Most of the electorate is partisan, so it stays put from cycle to cycle. This also does not mean that there have not been realigning features - as one group switches from one side to the other and stays there. Urban ethnics did in 1928/32 and Southern whites have been moving since 1948. My initial response noted the shift of white Catholics and the white working class. So, long term forces matter.

The conclusion I draw from these observations is that while there is stability and realignment, we need to remember that non-realigning features account for much of the cycle-to-cycle swings in the balance of power, which never take us very far from 50/50 for very long. Too many analysts forget that, and explain the most recent electoral results via realignment. That is why, for most elections in the past, you can find somebody somewhere who claimed it was somehow realigning.

Generally, I think realignment is one of those concepts that over-promises and under-delivers. It might account for the political dynamics from the Civil War to the Great Depression, but I do not think it explains nearly as much about the contemporary scene. So, I do not buy Teixeira's "new progressive America" - but for the same reasons I didn't buy the arguments for a "new conservative America" four years ago. If some conservatives find solace in my argument today, it is accidental. Four years ago, progressives might have found it comforting.

Similarly, these observations imply a clear suggestion to Republicans: innovate, innovate, innovate! Conservatives who presumed that previous victories implied a long-term majority were simply wrong. Political fortunes have swung back and forth over the years in part because political parties, once removed from office, work hard to get back into the majority. This is what Democrats were busy doing while some Republicans were celebrating their "enduring majority" (How many times did they trumpet their victories in 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties?). Now, it's time for Republicans to get to work.

What should they do? That's outside my area of expertise. I do know - and Sean Trende and I pointed out here and here - that, as Teixeira said, Hispanics moved to the Democratic Party between 2004 and 2008, and this was a contributing factor to the party's losses in several states. Far from asserting that this is of "no real significance," I would suggest that this is a great place to start.

-Jay Cost

New Progressive America? A Response to Ruy Teixeira

Ruy Teixeira has published a new report at the Center for American Progress (CAP), entitled "New Progressive America: Twenty Years of Demographic, Geographic, and Attitudinal Changes Across the Country Herald a New Progressive Majority."

Here is the gist of Teixeira's argument:

Obama's 53 percent of the popular vote is the largest share...received by any presidential candidate...[since] George H.W. Bush...So, separated by 20 years, we have two elections that are practically mirror images of one another...

How did conservatives do so well in one election but progressives so well in the other? The answer: In those intervening 20 years, a new progressive America has emerged with a new demography, a new geography, and a new agenda.

Let me say at the outset that I will not argue that Teixeira's thesis is wrong. Instead, my position is that it is underdetermined: the facts support alternative conclusions not consistent with his assertion.

Generally, I approach arguments like Teixeria's with a high burden of proof. Electoral history over the last forty years indicates a norm of divided government in which both parties share control. Furthermore, for the years when there was unified party government - the majority party lost power relatively quickly in a decisive, broad-based defeat.

Thus, even well constructed arguments about enduring majorities are going to have a tough time convincing me. Unfortunately, Teixeira's argument has problems in its execution. I count three, significant difficulties.

First. Teixeira makes use of long-term estimates of population change to argue for a "new demography" that will "reshape our country in a fundamentally progressive direction." He cites projections in growth among Hispanics, Asians, and African Americans so that by 2050, "the country will be 54 percent minority." It is outside my technical expertise to dispute those estimates - though I am generally skeptical of predictions about anything that is such a long way off.

I would dispute the political implications of these demographic projections. Teixiera's argument about future political demography assumes a static quality to American politics that is ahistorical.

For instance, consider that while John McCain lost the nationwide popular vote by seven points, he won the white Catholic vote by five points. From a historical perspective, this is remarkable. John Kennedy won 81% of non-Hispanic white Catholics, Lyndon Johnson 79%, and Hubert Humphrey (who lost in a three-way race) still won 55%. Forty years ago, any liberal analyst would have concluded that the white Catholic vote belongs to the Democrats. Yet today, we see the GOP holding white Catholics amidst a popular vote wipe out.

Similarly, who would have ever thought that the "white working class" - the backbone of the New Deal coalition for decades - would support the Republicans by 18-points as the nation supported the Democrats by 7? That is the most dramatic proof that voting coalitions are not static - and that we cannot extrapolate future alignments from current ones.

Electoral politics is not akin to Newtonian physics, where you derive your equations and then predict everything from here to eternity. Instead it's unpredictable. Why? One reason is the parties. They select issue positions and emphases to steal the other side's wavering voters and undermine its voting coalition. Again, recent electoral history has demonstrated that both parties are quite adept at this game. In light of that, how can we know whom Hispanics, Asians, "professionals," young voters, or anybody will support in 2048? I'd suggest we cannot. Using demographic estimates to predict long-range political preferences is an impossibly difficult task.

Second. Teixeira cites election data from the last 20 years without introducing the appropriate context. For instance, he writes:

[P]rogressives have been gaining strength among white college graduates. In 2008, Obama only lost white college graduates by four points, compared to an 11-point deficit for Kerry in 2004 and a 20-point deficit for Dukakis in 1988.

I do not dispute these numbers, but I disagree that this is evidence of a "new progressive America." There are many reasons voting results change from cycle to cycle. Though the concept has been vastly overworked, some of that change is due to "realignment." However, much of it is clearly not - and if the appropriate electoral context is excluded, you're bound to overestimate the extent to which realignment is a factor.

Return to the previous quotation. Democrats have gained 16 points in 20 years among white college graduates. Is this realignment, or the ebb and flow of non-realigning factors? I'd suggest the latter explains much of the difference. Consider the following chart. It tracks the average growth in the economy in the third and fourth quarters, the incumbent president's job approval in the pre-election Gallup poll, and the incumbent party's share of the presidential vote.

National Conditions and Incumbent Party Performance in Presidential Elections.jpg

Clearly, non-realigning factors play an extremely powerful role. This is why political scientists can build accurate predictive models of presidential elections based on a few simple variables.

Without this context, it is prohibitively difficult to tease out realigning factors between 1988 and 2008. The former is a year in which the economy was growing and the Republican President was popular. 2008 reflects the inverse. This makes it hard to conclude that realignment is accounting for the change among college educated voters, or any subgroup. I'm open to the idea that realignment is at work, because I think to an extent it is - but that means you must control for the non-realignment factors known to influence presidential elections. Teixeira does not do that, which means his statistics do not support his conclusion.

We can see this problem again when Teixeira argues about the increasing liberal tilt of the "growing areas of the country." He writes:

By and large, progressives received their strongest increases in support in the fast-growing, dynamic metropolitan areas of states, particularly the largest ones...The result is a political map with a distinct lean toward progressives, a lean that should increase in coming years.

Again, maybe. But is it not also plausible that the growing areas of the country were especially affected by the sudden, dramatic contraction in the economy that was occurring on Election Day, and that they responded (as the country as a whole typically has since 1840) by swinging to the out party in especially large numbers?

In other words, without the necessary context, every increase in the Democratic Party's share of the vote last cycle becomes a sign of growing liberal strength. This is an underdetermined inference.

Third. Teixeira argues that "the American people's views on what government can and should do" are changing. Again, I am not going to disagree with this per se. Instead, I'll suggest that the evidence Teixeira cites is unpersuasive.

Specifically, he references a series of polling questions (many done by CAP) whose wording is so vague it is impossible to infer any political implications. Here is a sample:

(1) "Religious faith should focus more on promoting tolerance, social justice, and peace in society, and less on opposing abortion or gay rights."

(2) "A positive image of America around the world is necessary to achieve our national security goals."

(3) "It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can't take care of themselves."

(4) "Government regulations are necessary to keep businesses in check and protect workers and consumers."

(5) The government should "invest in alternative energy like wind, solar and bio-fuels to create jobs, and reduce dependence on foreign oil."

Unsurprisingly, these questions elicited a high degree of public support, sometimes up to 75% in the CAP survey.

These sorts of questions would indeed damage the Republican Party...if it were a silly, oversimplified caricature of what it actually is. The problem is that these questions present a false choice, implying that one side is in favor of these items, and the other side opposed. Not really true - the actual political divides are much more subtle. The fact of the matter is that many Republicans are at least partially sympathetic to all of these assertions. Certainly, no mainstream Republican politician would suggest, for instance, that Social Security disability payments should be eliminated, or that workplace safety regulations should be done away with. I recall that John McCain talked frequently about biofuels on the campaign trail last cycle, and one major goal of the surge was to gain the trust of local Iraqi populations.

These questions do not directly capture the salient political cleavages in the country. Thus, they cannot be taken as evidence of a "new progressive America." Certainly, they hint at such cleavages, but they are worded in such a non-specific, general way that they do not reflect the actual debate, which is why they can garner such broad support.

Of course, there are answers to several questions that Teixeira cites that genuinely show liberal leanings on actual policy matters (like universal health care). Then again, as Teixeira notes, the CAP Study also found decidedly conservative responses to questions like this:

(1) "Limited government is always better than big government." (55% agree)

(2) "Free market solutions are better than government at creating jobs and economic growth." (57% agree)

(3) "Government spending is almost always wasteful and inefficient." (61% agree)

(4) "Government programs for the poor undermine individual initiative and responsibility." (48% agree, 21% neutral)

(5) "Social Security should be reformed to allow workers to invest some of their contributions in individual accounts." (57% agree)

Liberals can argue that there is an incipient liberalism in the data, and conservatives can argue that there is an incipient conservatism. However, I'd suggest another idea: the country is in many respects non-ideological.

One characteristic of ideology is issue constraint. An ideological thinker decides his positions based upon abstract principles, which therefore constrain the policy options he can endorse. For instance, an ideologue who thinks that the free market is better than the government would be constrained on his views of health care. To be ideological, he must oppose government managed care.

This data - as well as many surveys - suggests that a large segment of the country does not have such constraints on their views. The CAP study finds 55% of the public advocating limited government, and 65% advocating that the "government guarantee affordable health coverage for every American." There is substantial overlap here, which indicates that some subset of the population is answering in inconsistent ways, which implies non-ideological thinking.

In conclusion, I'll recapitulate my main points. Generally speaking, I am skeptical of arguments like this - even those that are well executed. Unfortunately, Teixeira's argument has problems in its execution. He uses oversimple assumptions about the links between future demographics and politics; he fails to separate realigning forces from the normal back-and-forth of electoral politics; and he relies on inconclusive polling data to argue that there has been an ideological shift in public opinion.

This is not to say that Teixeira is wrong. He may be right, and we may be entering 10, 20, even 40 years of a "new progressive America." My point is that he fails to make the case. Other theories - such as one that predicts continued, heated party competition amidst a substantially non-ideological public - are just as consistent with the evidence he cites.

-Jay Cost

Should Steele Stay or Go?

Boy oh boy, Michael Steele just cannot seem to stay out of the headlines. No sooner had the controversy about Rush Limbaugh died down did another begin - this time with Steele suggesting that he was in favor of "choice" on abortion.

Republicans are now having a conversation among themselves about whether Steele should stay or go. I'd like to offer my two cents on that, drawing upon what I have already said about the RNC chairmanship (see here, here, here, and here).

Politico's "Arena" has a discussion this morning around the question: "Is there room for Michael Steele in the GOP tent? How small can a tent get anyway?" This question is entirely misphrased, and Republicans should generally avoid thinking about Steele from this perspective. Steele is not a legislator whose "heterodoxical" views Republicans should "tolerate." Similarly, he is not a voter who agrees with the party more-often-than-not, but who has serious disagreements, and who the party should try to court, even if it means diminishing its ideological "purity" a little bit. If he were either of those things, we could reasonably talk about whether or not tolerance and "big tentism" is called for here.

Instead, Steele is a party employee with a job to do. Namely, he's tasked with helping the party win as many elections as possible. And while I agree that broadening the GOP's reach is an important goal for Republicans - it is simply not the principal goal of the RNC Chairman. It's one goal, but it is not his principal goal. The reason is that this is such an enormous task that the chairman of the RNC simply lacks the capacity to do it. We're talking about average voters here - not cable news junkies. For instance, we're talking about voters who recently voted Republican but have since switched to the Democratic Party. I guarantee you that if Michael Steele collected all of them in a room for an hour to preach to them the virtues of big tent Republicanism, the first thought 99.9% of them would have is, "Who the hell is Michael Steele and why should we listen to him for an hour?" In the grand process of party communication, the RNC Chairman is small potatoes. That's not to say he does not have a communicative role, but it is just not his chief job.

His chief job is to raise oodles of cash. And let's just be clear about how much money he has to put together:

-In 2004, the RNC raised $746 per minute.

-In 2006, it raised $462 per minute.

-In 2008, it raised $813 per minute.

That is the principal job of the RNC Chairman. It's not to hold hip hop outreach summits, praise P Diddy and the Pack Rats, or anything like that. It's about the money - first and foremost.

Bottom line: if Michael Steele cannot keep pace with - nay, exceed - past RNC fundraising hauls, the party as a whole will suffer, and it will be less able to take advantage of any opportunities it will have. Thus, if Republicans believe that he cannot keep pace, they should dump him as soon as possible and find somebody who can. And put aside the big tentism. That's just a red herring that is entirely inapplicable to the job of RNC Chairman.

I'd take this a step further: Republicans should be very concerned that Steele will be unable to raise the money. Again, we can talk about big tentism all we like, but to raise these funds, Steele is going to have to court Republican donors. These people, I'm just guessing, are pro-life and generally have warm feelings about either Rush Limbaugh or Snowe, Specter, and Collins. They are more inclined to pay attention than average voters - and they probably know at least a thing or two about what he has said. I'm guessing they were none too thrilled with him allowing DL Hughley to trash the RNC Convention as a Naziesque rally. And so on.

In other words, the GOP should be concerned that Steele is burning bridges between the RNC and the donating portion of the GOP base. This cannot be allowed to happen.

More broadly, Republicans need to get beyond the idea that losing in 2006 and 2008 requires 40 years in the wilderness and 40 lashes with a wet noodle. The party lost. It happens to every party sooner or later - especially when a war is mismanaged (by a President, not a party) and it gets bit by the bottom end of the business cycle. Even with all that, the GOP nominee still pulled in more than 45% of the vote. Yes, reforms in the party are needed - but for goodness sake, Republicans are members of a party that has been around for more than 150 years! A little confidence, and some Burkean perspective on the big picture, is called for. There is no need for a radical rebranding of the party, and there is certainly no need to tolerate a chairman who seems serially intent on alienating the donor base by dumping on the individuals and positions of his side, and playing into the hands of a White House working actively to keep the GOP on the outs for eight more years. This is not a prerequisite for victory. Money is, and if Steele can't bring it in - he needs to go. Period.

-Jay Cost

RNC Drama Continues

Yesterday I noted Chris Cillizza's report that the RNC had sent $1 million to the NRCC and the NRSC, calling that a good sign that Republicans are beginning to coordinate this cycle.

That conclusion might have been a little hasty. Over at The Hill, Reid Wilson has an interesting scoop:

Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Michael Steele sought to placate critics by giving $1 million to each of his party's debt-ridden campaign committees -- a move that follows a month of bad reviews, national slip-ups and a high-profile fight with one of the country's most famous conservatives

ut sources told The Hill that Robert "Mike" Duncan, the former chairman, had written checks three times that size -- for $3 million to each committee -- before he left, and that Steele slashed them to the smaller number.

That is a "lie," says the RNC -- and so another round of recrimination begins.

Duncan wrote $3 million checks to both the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) to help them pay down their debt, sources told The Hill.

But Duncan, out of deference to whoever became the next chairman, decided not to deliver the checks. To do so in advance of the January race for RNC chairman, the sources said, would have appeared self-serving. Duncan did not return a call seeking comment.

You never want to see party committees fight like this (unless, of course, you're on the other side!). If the report is accurate, that's a really bad sign. If it isn't, somebody on the inside is sniping at Steele. Also not a good sign. Internal squabbling won't necessarily prevent the party from winning - recall the tiff between Howard Dean and Rahm Emanuel in 2006 - but party coordination is optimal. This is not coordination!

Meanwhile, Fivethirthyeight.com is reporting that Michael Steele will be booted if the GOP fails to win the NY-20 special election. Jim Geraghty is skeptical, and so am I. Four problems: (a) this is a House seat, and so the NRCC is the party committee principally in charge; (b) Michael Steele has only been at the RNC for a month - seems a little early to judge his politicking capacities; (c) this is a seat the Democrats currently control - seems a little harsh to boot an RNC chairman for failing to pick up a House seat when the President's job approval is above 60%; (d) if Jim Tedisco loses, the first Republican to blame would be...Jim Tedisco, not Michael Steele.

This report - which cites "multiple former high-level RNC staffers" - might be true, but if it is that tells me that the RNC is just looking for an excuse to boot him.

But perhaps the worst sign for Steele - Joe the Plumber is going after him now!

-Jay Cost

Tracking Michael Steele

I spent a good part of last week analyzing Michael Steele's brief tenure of the Republican National Committee (see here, here, and here). There have been a few small news items on this front since then that I wanted to catch readers up on.

First, Mike Allen at Politico has this report:

EXCLUSIVE -- MICHAEL STEELE IN THE GARAGE: Look for the embattled RNC chairman to stay off TV this week, declining interviews while he picks a senior staff ahead of his March 31 target. His terrible week culminated with a "Saturday Night Live" portrayal of him wearing an electrode "that the Limbaugh people put in."

This is good news for Republicans - when you're digging yourself a hole, the best thing to do is stop digging.

Unfortunately, some damage might already be done. Last week, I wrote that Republicans should be worried that Steele's antics will turn off Republican donors. From NRO's Jim Geraghty, we learn that GOP leaders are indeed worried:

[A state party chairman who preferred another candidate in the RNC Chair race] was worried about long-term fallout from Steele's tiff with Rush Limbaugh.

"A tremendous number of Rush's listeners are GOP donors, and they're fragile donors. Will they come back? The worst thing Rush did is speculate that his listeners wouldn't donate. That was a huge signal [to listeners]. That was damaging to us, and that's the real carnage from that fight, not Michael Steele's reputation."

That chairman must not have loved Steele's interview with the New York Times where he again ripped his own party:

"I'm trying to move an elephant that's become mired in its own muck," Mr. Steele said in an interview last week in his sunlit Capitol Hill office, pausing whenever he appeared on the giant television close by his desk.

"You can say, 'He's crazy, he's running off at the mouth,' " he said. "Or you can say, 'It kind of makes sense, and I get it.' "

Lovely imagery - but still I'm left wondering, how is this consistent with his principal job, and exactly what does he think that job is? It's to raise cash and help his candidates, not to reform the party's image (whatever that means!).

Of course, the previous RNC Chairman - Mike Duncan - raised a boatload of cash ($428 million, a record in hard money donations for a party committee), and the GOP threw him out of office. Duncan left office with $22 million in the bank (a rare feat), and Steele is spreading that money around. This is from Chris Cillizza:

The Republican National Committee is donating $1 million each to the party's House and Senate campaign arms, a sign of Chairman Michael Steele's commitment to down ballot races, according to those familiar with the move.

"The Republican National Committee stands by our outstanding leaders in both houses of Congress," said Steele, adding that it was an "investment in Republican strong principled leadership."

The money will come in handy for the National Republican Congressional Committee as it seeks to claim a special election victory in New York's 20th district at the end of the month. On Wednesday, the NRCC made its first independent expenditure in that race, dropping nearly $50,000 on media and polling in the contest.

Republicans should be genuinely cheered by this. I've noted on this page before that coordination between party committees is ad hoc, dependent upon the individuals running the committees rather than on a set of party rules or expectations that party committees will actually work together. If 2010 turns out to be a year when Republicans can make gains, then coordination between the committees will be critical for making the most of it (and 1994 was a cycle in which there was a great deal of interaction between the NRCC, NRSC, and the RNC).

-Jay Cost

Should Republicans Be Worried about Michael Steele?

At this point, I'd say yes. I think Steele has an inflated idea of what his role as RNC Chairman is - and this misconception might interfere with his true task.

What's the purpose of the RNC? Is it to lead the Republican Party? No. The national committees are not leadership committees. Historically, they never have been - and today they possess none of the coercive power needed to lead an American political party. For instance, they have absolutely no power to influence members of Congress to vote contrary to their own preferences. The RNC is in service to its candidates, not vice versa.

Is it to be the public face of the party? Again, no. The voting public is now larger than 130 million people. The RNC simply lacks the resources to communicate to a public this large. The chairman can appear on cable news talkers from here to eternity, but he'll only ever reach a thin slice of the electorate. That's not to say that the RNC does not have a public relations role - but it is secondary. By the same token, it is out of the committee's scope to enlarge the party's voting coalition.

The purpose of the RNC is to assist Republican candidates in their quests for electoral victories. This includes candidate recruitment and training, as well as strategic advice during the campaign. However, the principal way it does this is through financial assistance. Campaigning is expensive, and campaign finance rules limit how much money candidates can collect from any one source. The principal job of the RNC is to circumvent these limitations, thereby supplying candidates with scarce electoral resources.

So, I would suggest that the RNC Chairman's primary job is to raise and distribute cash. This puts a particular burden on the current chairman - for the Democrats have eliminated the GOP's historic fundraising advantage, and actually raised more in 2008. Republicans need a chairman who can reinvigorate the party's fundraising apparatus.

Michael Steele has been talking quite a lot lately. However, I have not heard much from him about how he plans to match the Democrats dollar for dollar. Instead, I hear talk of how the GOP needs to expand its coalition, how it needs to undergo a "twelve step program," how moderate senators might be punished by the RNC, and so on. In other words, I hear a lot of talk from Steele that implies he thinks he is a party leader in a broad sense, tasked with bringing Republican legislators into line, and expanding the party coalition through massive outreach.

But he isn't.

The concern for Republicans is that he thinks it is. If he does, fundraising might suffer. First, he might be distracted by these secondary concerns. The party cannot afford a chairman who spends his time holding hip-hop outreach summits instead of fundraising. Second, his rhetoric might be counter-productive. Do moderate Republican donors want to hear talk of punishing Collins, Specter, and Snowe? Do conservative donors want to hear Steele call Rush Limbaugh "incendiary?" Do Republican donors of any stripe want to hear talk about putting the GOP through a "twelve step program," as if it's addicted to drugs? No, no, no. These are not the sorts of things you say to Republican loyalists as a prelude to asking them for their hard earned dollars.

Steele has an additional problem: he now looks like a nincompoop. Suppose that you're a marginal Republican donor - the guy who is on the fence about donating to the party. Are you going to trust Michael Steele to spend your cash wisely? Maybe not. So, what are you going to do instead? Well, the concern for the GOP is that you don't contribute to anybody, or you give it to your local Republican incumbent who has a safe reelection next cycle.

So, I think Republicans should be worried about Michael Steele. Fortunately for Republicans, the Federal Elections Commission requires monthly reports on fundraising and expenditures. So, if Steele is indeed underperforming, they will know soon enough.

-Jay Cost

Who's the Leader of the GOP?

That's a question lots of people are asking today, especially with the White House and the DNC suggesting that it's actually Rush Limbaugh who is in charge. Indeed, this claim might actually stick now that some Republican politicos are defending Rush in his dustup with Michael Steele, who has apologized to the radio talker.

Per my column yesterday, I'd argue that Rush Limbaugh is not the "leader" of the Republican Party. Limbaugh is a radio talk show host - a very important one who has 15 million listeners a week. But we're talking about a political party, and therefore electoral politics, which is a mass phenomenon. Limbaugh has influence in the party - that's for sure - but he is not the leader. Contrary to Reihan Salam's suggestion, he cannot remake the "Party of Lincoln" into the "Party of Limbaugh," nor does he have the power to define the image of the party for the mass public.

What about RNC Chairman Michael Steele? After all, he claimed to be the leader of the party in the same show that he called Limbaugh's program "incendiary" and "ugly." Bluster aside, he is not - and for proof of that all we need do is look at the prominent position the former "leader" of the Democratic Party, Howard Dean, now has in the Obama Administration. Oh...never mind!

Michael Steele's purpose as RNC Chairman is quite simple: to raise gobs of money to help candidates circumvent the Federal Elections Campaign Act and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (aka McCain-Feingold). His committee is the largest part of the legal money laundering machine of the Republican Party. It's his job to fly the party standard to attract donors who either don't know which candidates to contribute to, have maxed out to their preferred candidates and want to give more, or would just rather have the party decide how to spend the money. [And - by insulting Rush Limbaugh - he's doing a bang up job so far. Limbaugh is not the leader of the party, but I'll bet dollars to donuts that he has a boatload of party contributors (or could-be contributors) in his audience who are pissed off right about now.]

So, who's in charge of the Republican Party? Let's answer this by reviewing a topic discussed here last week - namely whether Steele has the power to punish Arlen Specter for voting for the stimulus bill. My answer was: no, he is powerless.

Since then, I have noted two items that relate to that story. The first is from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

A new statewide poll shows 53 percent of Pennsylvanians -- and 66 percent of Republicans -- want someone to replace Sen. Arlen Specter.

Asked whether they think Specter, a Philadelphia Republican, has done his job well enough to win re-election or whether they'd prefer a "new person" in that job, registered voters by a 53-38 percent margin said it's time to give someone else a chance, according to the poll by Susquehanna Polling and Research. Eight percent were undecided.

That article was published on Saturday. On Monday, the Hill published the following:

After previously ruling it out, former Pennsylvania Rep. Pat Toomey (R), who ran for the Senate in 2004, said Monday that he is reconsidering challenging Sen. Arlen Specter in the 2010 GOP primary.

"As this disastrous recession worsens, I have become increasingly concerned about the future of our state and national economy," Toomey said in a statement Monday. "Unfortunately, the recent extraordinary response of the federal government - more corporate bailouts, unprecedented spending and debt, higher taxes - is likely to make things worse. I think we are on a dangerously wrong path. Pennsylvanians want a US Senator focused on real and sustainable job creation that gets our economy growing again. That is why I am considering becoming a candidate for the US Senate."

So, it is not the party that might punish Arlen Specter for his heterodoxy - it is another candidate, one who has surveyed the political landscape and surmised that it is in his interests to explore a challenge.

I would suggest that this is where the locus of power resides in the Republican Party: in their candidates for and in office. It is by their strategic actions in pursuit of electoral victory that they shape the image of the GOP and the direction it takes. The RNC is - at the end of the day - in service to the ambitions of these candidates. Rush Limbaugh has millions of radio listeners - but that's still dwarfed by the number of voters party candidates collectively mobilize every cycle.

The next question is: who is looking out for the interests of the whole party? The answer: nobody. The title is actually a trick question. American political parties do not really have leaders, except when they temporarily control the White House (and even then, the President is still looking out for his own political interests, so there still can be conflict; plus his coercive power over fellow partisans is mostly informal). There is no permanent position or organization that makes sure that candidates behave responsibly, i.e. in a way that is consistent with the overall goal of the party (which is to take control of the government).

As somebody who supports "responsible party government," I see this as a huge problem. Without a centralizing authority that can discipline candidates, you're bound to find instances of the problem of collective action: the whole party wants to win control of the government, candidates want to win their own elections - frequently these goals can conflict, yet there is no way for the party to coerce candidates to do what is good for the party. We discussed this last week when we noted what a pantload Jim Bunning is, yet the party lacks a way to deal with him effectively.

Ultimately, candidates are in control. There is no entity - be it an organization or person - that really has the power to make sure they behave in a way that is responsible to the broader agenda party. It just does not exist. The actions of the party are frequently just the sum total of these individual schemes. There is no institutionalized position of leadership, in the sense that we traditionally think of one.

Now, this does not mean the party is bound to behave in an uncoordinated, "irresponsible" way. For instance, the Republican Party was quite coordinated in 1994 when it produced the Contract with America. So, coordination between candidates - that ultimately benefits the party as a whole - is possible. The problem is that this kind of coordination is ad hoc, not systematic. Sometimes you'll see candidates coordinate. Other times - as with the Democrats in 1996 - you'll see one candidate for office (in that case, President Clinton) work independently of other candidates of the same party (House Democrats). Clinton assessed that it was in his own electoral interests to triangulate and position himself as above the congressional fracas. This assessment was probably correct, but was it beneficial to House Democrats? Not so much.

Political scientists conceive of the old political party as a "truncated pyramid" in which the state parties were actually in charge, and the national parties were essentially powerless. Over the last century, reforms of varying quality destroyed that old structure - but they did not replace it with a new system where a central agent has some control over the whole scheme. There is still no top of the pyramid. Instead, candidates are in charge, and they coordinate or don't coordinate depending upon their assessments of their own interests.

There is a leadership vacuum on the Republican side right now - but really this is because they do not have a national candidate. The Democrats have one - his name is President Obama - so they have a "leader," though individual Democratic candidates are still basically in charge of themselves. With President Bush retiring to Texas and Senator McCain returning to the Senate, the GOP has nobody like that. The White House is taking advantage of this by characterizing the party as being led by Rush Limbaugh, who is unpopular from a national perspective.

-Jay Cost

Should The GOP Be The Party of No?

Over at Politico, Charles Mathesian and Patrick O'Connor don't exactly answer the title question, but they offer an extended meditation on it.

After near-unanimous Republican congressional opposition to President Barack Obama's stimulus package and a week dominated by headlines of GOP governors poised to reject stimulus funding, House Republicans followed up with another resounding "no" on the $410 billion omnibus spending package Wednesday.

This time, though, 16 members broke from the party line on a vote Minority Whip Eric Cantor had urged his colleagues to reject. And the cracks in the facade appear to be the first public signal of Republican rank-and-file squeamishness with a remarkably high-risk strategy that promises an uncertain return.

For Republicans, a central question looms: Is saying no to Obama's agenda the way to get voters to say yes to an already beleaguered GOP brand?

I'm not sure how they infer that 16 defections is a sign of "squeamishness" with the party's "remarkably high-risk strategy." This seems more like a literary device to push the thesis of the story, but let's finish their summary of the Republican situation.

Despite two consecutive election thrashings, and despite Obama's high approval ratings and their own low standing, Republicans have wagered that the return to the majority is paved by unwavering opposition to further spending, an audacious bet that won't pay out for another 21 months.

If Republicans are right, the economy will remain in tatters and voters will recognize in 2010 that the recovery was delayed by profligate Democrats and their president.

If the GOP is wrong, however, and the economy begins to show signs of life, the resistance will be easily framed as reflexive obstructionism, the last gasp of an intellectually bankrupt party.

There are a couple points I'd like to make. Mathesian and O'Connor are discussing an interesting subject - what's a party in the minority to do - but they overlook the core dilemma the Republicans face.

First of all, they have not framed the topic appropriately. While it is true that the party leadership has some influence over members of Congress - the authors implicitly overstate the power of the congressional party leadership. Ultimately, members are concerned with their own reelection before they are concerned with winning a majority. They have to be. If the party wins a majority next Congress, but they are defeated, what good does the majority do them?

So, when we are looking at these kinds of votes, we need to place the individual legislator at the forefront. I'd suggest that unanimity in the Republican caucus does not necessarily imply partisan coercion or servile adherence to the leadership's strategy. We can explain these no votes based on the individual incentives of Republican legislators. Consider:

(1) This House Republican caucus is about 50 members smaller than it was in the 109th. This means that its members are, on average, in safer districts. They can oppose Democratic-sponsored measures without as much fear of political payback. Indeed, supporting them might get these members in more trouble.

(2) If the economy improves, will individual legislators be seen as "reflexive obstructionists?" I'm not sure. Again, these members are in some of the most Republican places in the country. But, more than that, they have not really obstructed anything - the legislative measures are still going through.

(3) Additionally, it's easy for individual legislators to claim credit for good times. Few people understand how the House really works, which makes it easy to take responsibility for the good and shirk it for the bad. This is one reason popular Presidents do not to make major gains in midterm elections. When times are good, people have a "status quo" sentiment - and everybody in office can benefit from that.

(4) Suppose that some members are indeed voting based on a bet about the economy. That bet is going to be made in part on whether they think these bills are going to do much good. Republican partisans tend not to think that they will. We should expect Republicans legislators to think similarly - and thus be inclined to vote nay.

Let's turn to a discussion of what's good for the GOP as a whole. What should they be doing? Mathesian and O'Connor suggest that voting no is not necessarily the optimal strategy because it might make them seem "reflexively obstructionist." I would argue that voting no is the optimal strategy, but that does not mean it is a particularly good one. Instead, it's the best among a set of lousy options Republicans have.

I have written before on this site of the value of distinct party labels. I think that is what the GOP needs to develop. The only way the Republicans return to power is if the public becomes dissatisfied with Democrats and sees the Republicans as offering a satisfactory alternative. The assumption there is that the public has a clear view of where both parties stand - in other words, distinct party identities. They're not a sufficient condition of a Republican return, but I'd suggest they are a necessary condition.

These labels are maintained via a two step process: (a) pretty much everybody on one side agrees with each other and (b) disagrees with pretty much everybody on the other side. This is what congressional Republicans are doing with these no votes. They are generating clear distinctions with the other side.

The problem is that they are doing this by voting no. Why can't they do it by voting yes? Well, if the voted yes - they wouldn't be distinguishing themselves from Democrats!

This is the biggest reason why the minority is such a lousy place to be: you have no control over the agenda. This is the case for the House, where Nancy Pelosi and Democratic committee chairs are in charge of what get's voted on and what doesn't. It's also the case for the national debate. The stimulus bill was a case in point. House Republicans shocked pretty much everybody by voting unanimously in the negative. Suddenly, the national "agenda" shifted to talk about what was wrong the bill. What happened next? The President went on the road to pitch the necessity of the bill, then he held a primetime press conference to pitch the necessity of the bill, and the national agenda shifted to talk about why the bill was so necessary. That's the bully pulpit at work.

This is what happens when you're a unified minority facing a unified majority. You're left voting no - and journalists like Mathesian and O'Connor suggest that you look reflexively obstructionist. It stinks, but it is still the best option available. Republicans are not going to get back to power by being indistinguishable from the party in power. "An echo, not a choice" is a losing strategy.

More broadly, the party needs to find a way to inject its affirmative ideas into the national discussion. According to Byron York, Republican leaders recognize the need for this:

"You're seeing a major doctrinal shift in how Republicans are going to focus all these debates," the strategist told me [York]. "The key is to focus on winning the issue as opposed to winning the political moment. If you win the issue, people will think you are ready to govern."

I asked him to elaborate a little. "With the political moment, it's how can you find the one thing that gives you the momentary upper hand in terms of the coverage for the next six hours -- as opposed to engaging the electorate in creating a structural change in their opinion on which party is better able to handle an issue."

This is easier said than done. A President with an approval rating in the 60s can suck the oxygen out of the room pretty quickly, and that's what happened with the GOP's alternative stimulus plan. Nevertheless, that does not mean Republicans should not try to inject their ideas. Even if they fail more often than they succeed - and so long as the President is this popular, they will - at least they will be ready for when opportunities present themselves.

This, I'd suggest, is the core dilemma that faces the Republican Party, just as it does any party in the minority: they do not control the political agenda in any way, shape, manner or form. This is how President Obama and Speaker Pelosi can make them appear to be the party of nothing but no, even if they actually do have affirmative ideas. Facing a unified Democratic Party with a popular president and large majorities in government - Republicans are shut out, and not just of crafting legislation. They're also effectively shut out of the public discussion. All they can do is vote on Democratic bills - and wait patiently for the right moment to assert themselves again.

-Jay Cost

Michael Steele's Empty Threat

I have been talking over the last few weeks about the impotence of the national party units - particularly the national committees (see previous posts here and here).

Yesterday provided a great example of what I've been talking about. On his Fox News show, Neil Cavuto asked RNC Chairman what "retribution" the RNC would "exact" on the Republicans who defected on the stimulus bill.

This is an excellent test of party power. Here we have an important vote where nearly 99% of the Republican congressional caucus was in agreement. Does the national party possess the power to hold the defectors to account?

The answer from Steele...not really. Plenty of bluster, but nothing to worry any of the defectors (H/T Ben Smith):

So much for the RNC exercising political power on this one. Steele will do what the state parties will do. My hunch is that, at most, the state party would be neutral in the primaries.

But let's look at this from a worst-case scenario for a guy like Arlen Specter. Suppose the state party says, "Forget it! We're not with you!" The RNC follows suit. How much cash will Specter be missing out on?

We can answer this by looking at Specter's fundraising balance sheet from 2004. This will give us a sense of just how much the senior senator from Pennsylvania stands to lose, should the state party and the RNC bail on him.

In the 2004 cycle, Arlen Specter raised $14,953,355 in direct contributions. Of that, zero dollars came directly from the RNC. The state party made a $4,500 in-kind contribution. Additionally, a handful of Republican-sympathetic PACs* tossed in $5,000 apiece. There was nearly half a million dollars in coordinated contributions that the Republican Party as a whole spent - these are dollars that the Specter campaign and the party unit making the donation have a say in how they are spent. The RNC was responsible for about $38,000 of this and the state party was responsible for nothing.

Most of the party's effort came via the National Republican Senatorial Committee - the party's arm in the upper chamber. It spearheads the campaign for the Senate while the National Republican Congressional Committee does the same with the House. The RNC and the state parties usually play second fiddle - though in some years, like 1994, there has been a good bit of coordination.

Don't expect the NRSC to balk this cycle at helping Specter, who made a point (as most safe incumbents do) to help his fellow Senate Republicans in 2004. He gave tens of thousands of dollars to Ben Campbell, Jim Bunning, Charles Grassley, Bob Bennett, Don Nickles, Mike Crapo, Kit Bond, and Sam Brownback. He can expect to receive in return, should he need it this cycle. That's how it works.

Suppose, however, that the whole party apparatus gets behind Michael Steele and the Pennsylvania Republican Party to boycott Specter. What then? Even with all of these party dollars withheld, there is a simple, stark fact: an overwhelming majority of Specter's resources came from non-party sources in 2004, and the same will assuredly hold this cycle. He raised nearly $12 million from individuals and $3 million from PACs in 2004. By the end of 2008, he already had $5.8 million banked. Party dollars are barely a drop in Specter's bucket.

Bottom line: Arlen Specter does not need the Republican Party organizations - not the state party, not the RNC, and not even the NRSC. If anything, they need him. Michael Steele might be "open to everything," but the fact of the matter is that he's a paper tiger on this one. If Republicans are sick and tired of this, they need to focus on reshaping the rules that govern the relationship between party and candidates. Right now, they are geared almost exclusively for the benefit of candidates at the expense of the party.

* - Update, 6:30 PM - An earlier draft of this post erroneously stated that the Republican Issues Campaign PAC received $5,000 from the Republican National Committee in 2004. I regret the error.

-Jay Cost

Stay Classy, Jim Bunning! (or, Why I Hate the Party Primary)

Josh Kraushaar of Politico noted the following this morning (h/t Hot Air):

Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), already in political trouble for 2010, didn't help matters any over the weekend.

At a Lincoln Day Dinner speech over the weekend, Bunning predicted that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would likely be dead from pancreatic cancer in nine months, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.

The paper reports that Bunning reiterated his support of conservative judges, saying "that's going to be in place very shortly because Ruth Bader Ginsburg...has cancer."

"Bad cancer. The kind you don't get better from," Bunning went on. "Even though she was operated on, usually nine months is the longest that anybody would live after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer."

This item must have Republicans everywhere groaning. After all, the Senate landscape is not too favorable to the GOP in 2010. Because 2004 was a good year for them, they have to play a lot of defense in 2010. Kentucky was one of the most Republican-leaning states in 2008, but Republicans are worried about holding Bunning's seat because this kind of stuff is par for the course with him.

In fact, Republican leaders are so concerned about Bunning that they are actually thinking about sponsoring a primary run against him. Krashaar continues:

News of his comments comes as Bunning continues to take fire from the very Senate campaign committee tasked to help his re-election. PolitickerKY, a Kentucky-based political website, reported that state Senate President David Williams met with officials at the National Republican Senatorial Committee to explore a primary campaign against Bunning.

The report suggested that operatives of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were working to assist Williams in a potential primary campaign -- and that McConnell's pollster is commissioning a survey to assess Williams' viability against Bunning.

This might not be an easy feat. Primary campaigns like this are typically expensive, and they often fail to oust the incumbent. See, for instance, Don Young's victory in his primary battle last cycle. What's more, if the Kentucky GOP cannot induce Williams to jump into the fight - or find somebody else who could raise the cash and seem like a viable alternative - Bunning might waltz through his primary, just as Ted Stevens did that year.

This is one big reason I do not understand why partisans on both sides suffer the primary process. It has become one of many mechanisms that effectively guarantee incumbents will be on the general election ballot. What this means, in turn, is that the party usually has to tolerate guys like Don Sherwood, Stevens, and Bunning. There is no "low cost" way for Republicans to hold their incumbents accountable, which means only the Democrats do. And the same goes with Democrats when their incumbents behave badly.

Simply put, primaries are good for politicians, bad for the parties, and therefore bad for the tens of millions of people who sympathize with one party or the other. For all the talk that I hear from partisans about keeping their leaders accountable, I hardly hear any discussion about the primaries - and how inefficient they are at keeping them in line. Once a politician wins election, it becomes much more difficult for the party to make him responsible to the party. And in the case of a guy like Bunning, most Republicans have probably been reduced to praying that he'll just drop out - that's how little power they have over their elected officials.

It wasn't always like this. The parties used to control nominations via the convention process. This was one innovation of the Jacksonian party system. The problem, of course, was that the nomination process was captured, then corrupted, by oligarchic "machines." As the late, great V.O. Key once put it:

The convention system was susceptible to control and management [by small cliques of men working in concert toward a common end], and party organizations and factions soon set about to determine the outcome of the representative process within the party.

The solution, instituted starting around the turn of the last century, was the primary system. Progressive reformers believed that more democracy was the cure to this corruption. The problem, in my opinion, is that the progressive reformers didn't just kill the disease plaguing the party organizations. They killed the party organizations, too. And indeed, Key himself found evidence of this. In districts with primaries where one party had a modest, but not overwhelming advantage, Key noticed that the out-party had a tendency to wither and die, so that it couldn't provide a serious challenge when it had a real chance. The reason? Eliminating the convention process eliminated a big reason for the party to exist and maintain itself in the district. So, it fizzled.

And, of course, changes in the way campaigns work created a problem with the primaries that nobody could have seen coming. The move to a mass media campaign meant that the race for office was largely determined by the race for dollars. Combine that with the Federal Elections Campaign Act and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (aka McCain-Feingold), and you get the following, perverse result. To defeat a pantload like Bunning in the primary, you have to raise an ungodly sum of cash, but you have to find many sources of money because of the extreme restrictions placed on campaign donations. These restrictions inherently favor incumbents who, being in Washington and knowing lots of the "right" people, can cobble together millions of dollars based upon modest $5,000 contributions. This is Congress' idea of campaign "reform," which always seems to favor congressional incumbents! A strange coincidence, isn't it?

For the life of me, I don't know why party activists put up with this nonsense. Sure, our politics is mostly determined by the Republican-Democrat cleavage. But there are other cleavages as well, like the divide between partisans and party candidates, which has a lot in common with the principal-agent problem (or, how can the principal ensure that his agent behaves responsibly?). Partisans everywhere have an interest in exerting more control over the incumbents who have the privilege of carrying the party banner into the general election, and yet they have allowed those incumbents to establish rules that work for them. It seems to me that if the party had better mechanisms to watch its incumbents, and hold them accountable before the other side has a chance to, they'd be much better off.

Yet the public discussion is essentially bereft of talk of reforming our electoral institutions. I hear lots of people complain about guys like Bunning, but I hardly hear anybody talk about changing the rules as a way to solve the problem. I'm not saying a wide scale return to the convention process is the best idea - though frankly I think it has some merit - but I do think some changes to the process are necessary. What is needed is a way to make it less costly and less risky for the party to monitor and hold accountable its own elected representatives.

Scholars of the contemporary American party like to say that it's "in service" to its candidates, especially its incumbents. Shouldn't it be the other way around, at least for jackasses like Bunning?

-Jay Cost

Three Cheers for Partisanship!

Political polarization has been on the rise in the last few years. I recently completed an analysis of presidential elections that showed it to have bottomed out in 1988, but steadily rising in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush years. By the metrics I used, 2008 was the most polarized presidential election in recent history.

It's also been on the rise in Congress. The following picture is from Keith Poole's excellent website on congressional ratings, and it is taken from the page that summarizes the book he co-authored with Nolan McCarthy and Howard Rosenthal, Polarized America. It shows the average ideological score for Republicans and Democrats in the House going back to the 1870s:

House Party Means.jpg

A picture tells a thousand words.

It was in this polarized political climate that Barack Obama announced his intention of running for President back in January, 2007. In his introductory video, he said the following:

But challenging as they are, it's not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most - it's the smallness of our politics. America's faced big problems before, but today our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, commonsense way. Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions. And that's what we have to change first. We have to change our politics, and come together around our common interests and concerns as Americans.

At the time, I took this to be Obama's argument as to why he should be elected President as opposed to anybody else who wanted the job. He was always going to have his work cut out for him. By their methodology, Poole and Rosenthal found that the 110th Senate was the most polarized since Reconstruction.

For better or worse, Obama's promise of bipartisanship has yet to be fulfilled, as the vote on the stimulus bill demonstrates. We'll see how the 111th Congress ultimately rates, but it's off to a great start to beat the 110th as the most polarized since Reconstruction.

Last week, I argued that bipartisanship was easy to talk about, but much harder to achieve. It frequently conflicts with honest differences of opinion in visions of the public good. It can conflict with the personal goals of ambitious politicians. And, the easiest bipartisanship "compromise" - the status quo - is often unacceptable to the mass public. All of these factors seem to have conspired to divide the stimulus vote in Congress pretty neatly along party lines. With bipartisanship not dead but not at all well, I want to take an opportunity on President's Day to argue: who cares? Bipartisanship is overrated, anyway!

The first point I'd make is that bipartisanship is not the only solution for our political problems. We have other methods that have served us well in the past. Typically, one of the reasons people extol the virtues of bipartisanship is that it is a way to break up gridlock. The same old, same old crowd in Washington isn't getting stuff done, and we need both sides to put down their petty differences and just do it. But we have other ways to get Washingtonians moving in the direction we want. We call them elections. In fact, just 22 months after the House of Representatives is seated, every member of that body will stand for reelection. This can be a very effective way to get things done. Just compare the 103rd Congress to the 104th, and now the 109th to the 111th.

Elections can break up gridlock, but that doesn't mean that they all do. Most of them don't. But is that a bad thing? I've argued many times on this page that gridlock is a predictable result, given our constitutional system. The Framers were very concerned about one faction rolling another faction in our country, thus destroying true republican government. The solution they settled upon was to pit power against power in a divided system. The idea behind it was that, when there is a broad coalition that favored a change in the status quo, our system would allow that change to go through. Otherwise, expect there to be gridlock, which is really just a signal that some faction has used its power to thwart another faction. If the Framers had employed slogan writers, they might have called it, "Pluralism we can believe in!"

Second point. Ideally speaking, bipartisanship has some real benefits. But when we view it in practical terms - above all with an eye toward the way the average voter actually behaves - we see some serious drawbacks. Political scientists have discovered at least one consistent theme about the American voter in the sixty or so years they have been using the scientific survey: he doesn't know terribly much about politics. Think of all those surveys you hear of where the average respondent can't name a single Supreme Court Justice, and you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

We can bemoan the state of the average American's political knowledge all we want, but that doesn't mean we can do much about it. This is America, after all. If Joe doesn't want to know anything about politics, it's his right. The more interesting question is this: given his ignorance, how does the average voter nevertheless make a decision about whom to support? Answer: political parties! Think of it this way. Joe can't name a single member of Congress (beyond perhaps his own), doesn't know a single Supreme Court Justice, and needs a minute or two to remember the Vice President's name. But he knows that the Democratic Party is generally for expanding government and the Republican Party is generally for shrinking it. Does he have enough information to make a reasonably informed choice? I'd say yes - that more often than not he'll pick the party that corresponds with his own interests that cycle. In other words, the party label is a heuristic device, a mental shortcut that helps low information voters make a reasonably informed choice.

So, here's the next question: what would happen if our politicians were suddenly afflicted with severe bipartisanship? We might achieve some happy, short term political benefits, as everybody makes nice with everybody else, but over time we might be hurt. If the party label is a heuristic device that low info voters use to guide their decisions, it has to be maintained. You do that in two ways: everybody on your side (a) agrees with each other, and (b) disagrees with everybody on the other side. If this happens both on the campaign trail and in government, low info voters will be able to intuit clear differences between the parties, and thus be able to make a more informed choice. Bipartisanship means that the two sides are agreeing more often with each other (and there's probably more disagreement within each side, too). After a while, low info voters might not be able to tease out any differences between the parties, and then it'll be just as Ralph Nader (and Bob Dylan) said: a choice between Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.

What if the median position on the Republican side is where Norm Coleman generally stands and the median position on the Democratic side is where Ben Nelson stands, but both sides still have diehards like Jim DeMint and Russ Feingold? Congress might be able to get a lot done in the short term, but in the long term average voters are going to have a hard time keeping them accountable, as they'd be less able to differentiate which side stands for what. Decrease democratic accountability, and you decrease the odds that Congress is working for the people.

With all of the special interests and moneyed groups trolling around the halls of Congress as I write this, we need to remember that partisanship is one of the precious few things in Congress that actually works for the people generally. It's a way for average folks to hold members of Congress accountable. Bipartisanship might be good in the short term, but in the long term it might interfere with our limited abilities to keep the legislature in line.

And if you don't much care for the party line vote on H.R. 1 we witnessed last week, you might appreciate it come November, 2010. After all, it is crystal clear who supported what measures to adopt in pursuit of recovery. In 21 months, if the economy has recovered to our satisfaction - swing voters will know to credit the Democrats. If it hasn't, they'll know to blame them. Their vote choices will be reasonably informed, even if they spend more time reading Us Weekly than US News.

-Jay Cost

The Limits of the RNC

Lots of conservatives paid close attention to the recent chairmanship election at the RNC, using it as a proxy for the future direction of the party.

I did not.

I've made a careful study of the scholarly literature on the national committees, and I am left generally unimpressed by them. The scholarly consensus is that the national committees are little more than "service" organizations that work to transfer money from the national party to gubernatorial and presidential campaigns (as well as helping the state party's meet their bottom lines) - but they exercise little-to-no political power.

Chris Cillizza reports today on one good reason why they exercise no power.

One week after Michael Steele won a hotly contested race to be the chairman of the Republican National Committee, he has cleaned house and laid off almost the entire RNC staff.

Steele met with the full staff on Tuesday and word of the mass layoffs came shortly after that. According to sources familiar with the move, all of the communications and political staffers are being let go.

Some senior staff members -- in expectation of being let go -- submitted their resignations shortly after Steele won the chairmanship last Friday. Others have already found new jobs, most notably RNC political director Rich Beeson who will return to his post at FLS Direct, and Amber Wilkerson who will serve as national spokeswoman at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Such an overhaul is not entirely unprecedented particularly given that Steele ousted incumbent RNC Chairman Mike Duncan from the job in the vote last week and his entire message during that campaign was built around the idea that change was needed after the disastrous GOP showing in the 2008 election.

This is one reason why I wouldn't put too much stock in the RNC being part of any Republican reformation. What effect can an organization have if its staff is cleaned out at least once every four years? Because remember, that'll be exactly what happens should the GOP win the presidency in 2012. The nominee-turned-President will "capture" the organization, just as President Obama has captured the DNC, and staff it with his people. If the nominee loses, expect another incumbent-ousting election at the RNC, and thus another round of house cleaning.

High staff turnover like this means an absence of institutional memory, and thus one reason among many to see the national committees as being little more than in service to candidates. Principally, what these outfits do is "fly the flag" of the party, attracting donations from far-and-wide that are then sent to gubernatorial and presidential candidates (either through direct contributions, transfers to state parties, or spent on their behalf via "independent" expenditures). But they have never been an integral part of the rebranding of a political party. Ultimately, that's going to be left up to the candidates running for office. Through their collective actions, they will set the tone for the future.

The national committees have never wielded any significant political power. This is easy to overlook because we see the national committees being in some way connected to the national party identity - and of course they exploit this in their fundraising. But the fact remains that their job is relatively narrow. Their role is basically just to by-pass the more onerous limitations of the Federal Elections Campaign Act and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (aka McCain-Feingold): they collect the cash and distribute it to candidates who need it but who face various legal limitations. I've said it several times on this site: legal money laundering and little else. This is why the title of an old scholarly work on them still holds true today: the national committees are politics without power.

From this perspective, perhaps Mike Duncan's defeat was somewhat unfair. After all, the RNC had a good fundraising cycle, especially considering President Bush's lousy job approval numbers.

-Jay Cost

The Limits of Bipartisanship

The news reports today are full of stories about the White House going on offense to retake control of the messaging on the stimulus bill, which many believe the President is losing as the bill stalls in the Senate and its poll numbers slip.

I am certainly no expert in economic policy, so I cannot trace the bill's problems to its quality. My impression is that its political troubles really began when the House GOP caucus surprised most everybody by voting unanimously against it. That dealt a blow to the hope that the incoming administration could forge new bipartisan coalitions. Frankly, I was never a believer in that. As the White House gets back on the offense today, hopefully it has learned a valuable lesson: bipartisanship makes for a handy campaign pitch, but as a governing strategy, it has its limits. Partisanship is a real thing, and its causes are not really reducible to moral failings in our politicians, as is often supposed to be the case.

There is something to be said for changing the tone of political discussion. There is often a great deal of nasty or ill-tempered rhetoric that can be toned down. But beyond that, talk of bipartisanship sounds to me like the hazy dreams of casual observers who don't understand how American politics has practically functioned for 200+ years.

For starters, when we think about bipartisanship, we need to remember that virtually all of the Framers were opposed to partisanship when they were drafting the blueprint for the government. But when they actually got down to governing, they became the first partisans! If we want to talk partisan nastiness, we can always look back to the election of 1800, which actually pitted the authors of the Declaration of Independence against one another. If Thomas Jefferson and John Adams couldn't manage a civil discussion of the issues that divide us, what hope do the rest of us have?

Within fifty years of our decidedly anti-partisan founding, we had two robust political parties akin to what we have today. That's a tip off that partisanship is perhaps an inevitable feature of our politics - and political scientists have done good work explaining why politicians find parties and partisanship to be of so much use. I don't want to get into all the details of why parties are helpful for politicians - I'll just make three points that are relevant to the stimulus bill.

First, partisan disagreements are real. That is, they concern different conceptions of the right or the good - and they are generated in good faith. One side is not the defender of all things pure and sacred about America while the other side is dangerously working to undermine them. Instead, partisan disagreements are typically the result of honest differences about issues for which there is no obviously correct answer. These are bound to manifest themselves in politics. The chance that these differences will appear is positively related to the scope of the debate. So, if you're going to name a post office in Altoona - well, that's a small matter and it's unlikely that partisan differences are going to get in your way. But if you're handling something big, like - oh, I don't know - jump starting the American economy, expect partisan differences to make at least a cameo appearance.

Second, bipartisanship can often conflict with the personal goals of politicians. Now, I suspect that some readers are about to boil with rage at the thought of crafty politicos angling for their personal good at the expense of the public interest. And, when we're talking about things like graft, I'm right there with you. But participation in government creates a huge collective action problem. Namely, why should an individual work on behalf of the public good? It's rational to let some other fool do it while you collect all the benefits. One solution we have generated for this is to make holding political office estimable. This creates personal benefits for elected officials to enjoy while they aid the public good. If you're elected to Congress, you are called "Honorable." When you're in the majority, you enjoy more staff, better offices, more say in what happens. If you're plucky, you might someday get to be called "Mister (or Madame) Speaker." And if you're the pluckiest of them all, someday you might get to be the President, the only person in government with a theme song. So, it's good to be in politics. It has to be - if it wasn't, nobody worth a salt would bother getting into it.

Practically speaking, this can create a problem for bipartisanship. If you're in the opposite party of the President - bipartisanship is not necessarily going to help you. Oh sure, it'll help the President, who will enjoy higher job approval numbers and an easy cruise to reelection. But what about you? The higher his numbers, the less likely your side is to pick up seats in the next midterm election. And, should the Chief's numbers go high enough, you might even find yourself at risk of losing your seat, heaven forbid! So, if an opportunity presents itself to knock the POTUS down a peg, you might have an incentive to do it.

The third relevant problem with bipartisanship is that there is a bipartisan solution to most problems - it's just that the public hates it (and President Obama campaigned assiduously against it). That solution is the status quo. If one side vehemently objects to the changes that the other side wants, and vice-versa, the chances are good that they both have the same second choice: no change at all. [See, for instance, George W. Bush's belly flop on Social Security reform in 2005.] So, gridlock is actually bipartisan.

When we consider all this, we might conclude by asking whether the partisan tone is so inexplicable. Maybe it's actually inevitable. People being people, isn't partisan nastiness to be expected sooner or later? And when it comes, how can you get rid of it? In the scenario I've sketched, policy and personal interests yield political disagreements, then deadlock, then public disaffection. It seems inevitable that a vocal minority on both sides will, in frustration, shoot their mouths off, which is typically all it takes for the tone to fall into the gutter.

None of this is to say that the President isn't going to be able to pull in some Republican support on this bill. He might. Regardless, I think believe bipartisanship is of limited use in governing this country. The Presidency is a powerful office, but it isn't powerful enough to overcome partisanship.

-Jay Cost

Gallup on Nationwide Partisanship

Over the course of 2008, Gallup conducted an enormous number of interviews with voters nationwide. Such a large dataset could be used for more than just tracking the horse race, and Gallup has begun to deploy it for a broader purpose. Today, they have published an article on partisanship in the 50 states based on all of their public polling conducted through 2008.

First off, thanks to Gallup for using this data for something more than tracking changes in Obama-McCain in June. Hopefully, we'll see more publications like this.

So, what's the upshot of Gallup's findings? Unsurprisingly, they find that the country has moved left. Below is a reproduction of their partisanship results from 2002, 2006, and 2008.

Gallup Partisanship 2002-2008.jpg

Clearly, the shift is uniform and not insignificant. Gallup spends a good deal of time discussing this, and I won't repeat their key findings. I encourage you to read their write-up carefully.

Instead, I want to focus on two points.

First, this should serve as a cautionary note for those with a habit of finding new, permanent majorities in recent election results. As these maps make clear, it does not take long for partisan identification to shift one way then back again.

That's not to say that any given election isn't the starting point of a permanent shift - it's just that it takes time to differentiate it from movement generated by the mood of the country. For instance, back in 1953, one could have examined the elections of 1948 and 1952 and determined that the GOP was reestablishing permanent majority status in the Northeast, and breaking up the Democrats' permanent majority in the South. Only one of those statements would have turned out to be correct - and you wouldn't know one way or the other until you had several more elections go by.

The bottom line is that there is an underlying stability to partisanship that can shift over time - as we have seen, for instance, in Connecticut and Mississippi in the last 80 years. However, partisanship is a more complicated concept. People can shift their partisan orientation because of the national mood - so that when that mood changes again, so also does the partisanship. These pictures make that clear.

Second point. These pictures offer a warning about interpreting public opinion polling. Relative to election results, there appears to be a bias in their partisanship data. I don't think it's sufficient to say that it's a pro-Democratic bias, as one might infer from just examining the 2008 results. Instead, it might be better to say that it's a pro-majority party bias. In other words, this data overstates the electoral power of the majority party.

For its part, Gallup sees this problem, too. They have a sensible explanation that is worth breaking down into smaller pieces:

There are several reasons for possible disparities between the party affiliation data and the voting outcomes in a given state. First, turnout has typically been an equalizer in U.S. electoral politics because Democrats almost always have an advantage in identification, but Republicans have been competitive in national and state elections over the last three decades because Republicans are usually more likely than Democrats to vote.

This is a good point, but it wouldn't account for some of their 2002 findings. After all, Gallup has persistently Democratic states like Michigan and Vermont (!) leaning to the GOP that year. They have the Democratic advantage at less than 5% in states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We can't explain these by virtue of a Democratic bias. That's why I would suggest a majority party bias in the results.

Second, one's partisan leaning is not a perfect predictor of voting in a presidential election, in which candidate-specific characteristics can influence a voter's choice.

This is true, but we need to expand on it. Partisan defections are not uniform, and this points to a fundamental point about our two-party system.

Look at the states in what the Census Bureau calls the South Central divisions (Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama). They are not the most Republican-leaning states on the map when it comes to partisanship, but in the last few cycles they have been when it comes to votes. Why? White Democrats in these states have been highly prone to defection in recent cycles, as Sean Trende and I argue here. In the South Central divisions, McCain won 33% of white Democrats - including a whopping 60% in Louisiana.

This indicates an underlying reality about the Democratic Party. It is a very broad political party. I personally doubt that it has been smaller than the GOP at any point since 1932 (regardless of what polling data might say for 2002-2004). That enables it to compete in congressional elections in most districts. In most places, there is a solid core of people who are amenable to the Party of Jackson. This is why Maxine Waters and Travis Childers are in the same caucus.

However, breadth carries with it political problems in a diverse Republic such as ours. Namely, it is difficult for the national party to craft issue positions and emphases that appeal to all Democrats. The same goes for national candidates. Take Barack Obama for instance. He won a smashing nationwide victory, the largest we have seen in 20 years. Yet he could not hold all quadrants of his party's voters, losing large portions of self-identified Democrats in the South.

It's a big party that is difficult to unite - which in turn enables the GOP to win handily states that Gallup identifies as solidly Democratic. This is why Arkansas, Kentucky, and West Virginia have, in recent years, voted strongly Republican, but still exhibit strong partisan ties to the Democratic Party.

Third, the party affiliation data reported here cover all of 2008, while presidential election voting was limited to Nov. 4 or the weeks leading up to it.

The idea behind this argument is that partisanship shifts through the course of the campaign, as many political opinions might. Respondents at the beginning of the cycle are more partial to one party, but become less so as the campaign goes on - so that ultimately there is a difference between June polls and November votes.

I wholeheartedly agree, and I have consistently argued against using polling data from the spring or summer. Polls done significantly before an election have precious little value, and I think polling analysts have a bad habit of overemphasizing them. Gallup shoulders a good share of this blame, for they have contributed to this overuse. What is the need for a daily tracking poll in June, for goodness sake? What possible value can it have? I can think of no reason except that political junkies demand it, and they drive web traffic and thus advertising dollars.

I can appreciate taking periodic tests of public opinion so we can get a general sense of the national mood, but that daily tracking poll gave the wrong impression about the value of those data points. The implication is that there is a reason to track day-to-day changes when there simply isn't. This had the effect of spoiling political analysis in the summer, I think, as analysts were too dependent on the numbers.

So, when the next cycle rolls around, and you find yourself obsessively checking Gallup's new daily tracking poll at 1 PM in the middle of the summer - just remember what Gallup told you today: polls taken in June don't necessarily mean much for elections held in November!

-Jay Cost

Is 2008 a Realignment?

Barack Obama's decisive victory last Tuesday has some wondering whether this was a realigning election.

"Realignment" is an overused term, and some scholars have questioned whether it is a profitable category to apply to elections. Temple University's Robin Kolodny wrote this a few years ago:

Realignment has been in trouble as a theory for explaining party identification and electoral behavior for some time. The most obvious problem is that there has been no full realignment since 1932, and no consensus has emerged on what, if any, partial realignment has taken place in 1968, 1974, 1980, or 1994.

Yale University's David Mayhew wrote a cogent critique of realignment theory in 2004, arguing that the facts don't fit the story so well.

So, let's lower our sights a little bit. Let's put aside the terminology and compare 2008 to three times that, regardless of whether they were realignments, were definitive moments in American electoral history: 1860, 1894-96, and 1932. Realignment or not, it should be profitable to see how today compares to these past times.


Upon James Polk's election in 1844, the Union was equally balanced between slave and free states. The addition of so much territory during his term disrupted that balance. The South wanted to extend slavery to the Pacific. A growing segment in the North wanted to limit it to existing slave states.

The government tried two solutions in four years. The first was the Compromise of 1850. The deal ultimately split the Whig party into regional factions. By 1856, it was gone. The second was the Kansas-Nebraska Act, implemented in 1854. It allowed popular sovereignty to determine whether the Kansas and Nebraska territories would be slave or free, precipitated a violent conflict in Kansas, split the Democrats, and effectively created the Republican Party.

By 1860, the stage was set. The Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln. Southern Democrats nominated Vice-President John Breckinridge on a pro-slavery platform. Northern Democrats nominated Senator Stephen Douglas on a popular sovereignty platform. Finally, a group of old Whigs and "Know-Nothings" formed the Constitutional Union Party, nominated former House Speaker John Bell, and called for saving the Union.

The following picture shows how this played out. As usual, Republicans are in red and Democrats are in blue. Also, Whigs are in brown, Southern Democrats are in gray, and Constitutional Unionists are in purple:

Taylor Pierce Buchanan Lincoln.gif

Lincoln won less than 40% of the popular vote, not having appeared on the ballot in most Southern states, but his Electoral College victory proved how politically powerful a unified North could be: 180 for Lincoln, 72 for Breckinridge, 39 for Bell, and 12 for Douglas.


By the 1880s, the Democrats had returned to electoral competitiveness by accepting many of the political premises of industrial development. The end of Reconstruction and the Panic of 1873 ultimately gave them control over the House for eight of the next ten Congresses. The lone Democratic President of the era - Grover Cleveland of New York - favored the gold standard, which was good for industrial interests in the East but hard on farmers in the South and Midwest.

The grievances of farmers and rural people found expression via the Populist Party (shaded yellow in the subsequent picture), which had become a regional political force by 1892. The economic crisis precipitated by the Panic of 1893 brought these tensions to a head. The midterm election of 1894 saw the GOP pick up 130 House seats, based on big gains in the Northeast and North Central regions.

This was the beginning of a change that would manifest itself on the presidential level in 1896 when William Jennings Bryan captured the Democratic nomination, promising "free silver." His opponent, William McKinley, supported the gold standard. The election of 1896 was fought over the currency issue, and the result produced a sharp industrial-agrarian divide.

Cleveland Harrison McKinley.gif

Though the South is joined this time by the Mountain West and the Great Plains, the divide again favors the North. McKinley won 271 electors to Bryan's 176.


This was a significant election not simply because the Depression began under the GOP's watch. It also had to do with the party's response. President Herbert Hoover failed to address the crisis to the public's satisfaction. Meanwhile, the Democrats nominated New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt, who had a great last name and a solid reputation of his own, having mobilized his government to fight the Depression in the Empire State.

Hoover Roosevelt.gif

Unlike in 1860 or 1896, a very broad transregional consensus emerged. As famed newspaper editor William Allen White later observed, the election of 1932 signaled "a firm desire on the part of the American people to use government as an agency for human welfare."


While the particulars of these elections are different, they tell a similar story about the political parties. In all three, the parties had to manage issues of great importance that could not be ignored. This is why we remember Lincoln's "House Divided," Bryan's "Cross of Gold," and Roosevelt's "New Deal." They each took clear stands on issues whose resolutions would determine the course the nation would set.

What's more, there was little room for common ground those years. Either slavery would expand or it wouldn't. Either the government would authorize the free coinage of silver or it wouldn't. Either it would take a more active role in the economy or it wouldn't. Practically speaking, the differences could not be split.

So, these issues upset the normal functioning of the parties. By their nature, parties select issue positions and emphases in pursuit of electoral majorities. Obviously, no party can undertake a full-scale reinvention of itself. However, in pursuit of a majority, it can frequently "finesse" matters. It can slightly alter some positions, it can equivocate or obfuscate on others, and it can emphasize particular issues or personalities depending upon the audience. The goal is to string together an electoral majority among the diverse elements of our large Republic.

In these years, this process was disrupted to some degree. Issues of great salience dominated the political discourse and forced the parties to stake out relatively clear positions. There was little room for finessing. Thus, votes from those years can be seen as opinions on the critical issues more directly than votes from other years.

So, examining the parties and the issues they handled this cycle might help us understand how 2008 stacks up against these three elections. Did the parties behave similarly this year as they did then? Were the issues similar?

I think the answers to both questions are negative, which cuts against the hypothesis that this election was a "realignment." For starters, there was no central, defining issue that disrupted the normal party process. Instead, both candidates covered a variety of issues, few in any depth. There was also a scarcity of clear contrasts between Obama and McCain. Indeed, on the subject that might have emerged as a realigning issue - the financial bailout - they voted the same way.

Relatedly, both candidates made the search for common ground a defining feature of their candidacies. McCain would cite Hillary Clinton just as often as Obama would mention Richard Lugar. There was no House Divided, no Cross of Gold, no New Deal. There was the promise of pragmatic governance and a change in tone toward bipartisan conciliation.

This evidence disfavors the idea that 2008 was like these previous elections. Now, it might be that 2008 was a kind of realignment - perhaps a "partial" one. However, I would return to the above quotation from Robin Kolodny. Adding a qualifier like this strikes me as the sort of inelegance that is tolerated when a theory is losing its explanatory power - like adding epicycles while waiting for the Copernican revolution.

None of this is to claim that the GOP isn't in trouble. For the Republicans, much depends on how well Obama governs. If he governs to the public's satisfaction - the GOP could be in the minority for a while. If he does not - it's return may be speedier.

-Jay Cost

The Party System and the 2008 Campaign

The following is the text of the address I delivered on Thursday, May 1st at Princeton University, at a conference entitled "The American Electoral Process," sponsored by the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics.

First of all, I'd like to thank Professor Larry Bartels and the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics for extending an invitation to me to participate today.

I'd like to respond to our headline question, "2008: Where We've Been and Where We're Going," by discussing the national party organizations - and their capacity to manage an election like this.

This has been a terrific nomination contest. Edifying, exciting, a few sharp elbows thrown, but not too many. Above all, it looks like the public will have a clear choice between two distinct political visions come November. Hopefully, this campaign will yield meaningful election results from which the victor can claim a mandate to move the country forward.

However, this process has also exposed some weaknesses in our democratic institutions. Specifically, it is clear that the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee have been unable to manage their nomination processes. The RNC will probably pay no consequence for its impotence this year, but the DNC might. Its weakness might ultimately contribute to a brokered convention that would diminish its nominee's capacity to conduct a spirited fall campaign.

Let's step back and think about these national committees in general terms. This should provide some context for understanding the drama that has unfolded on cable news.

The purpose of these primaries is to secure the party's nomination. However, the nomination itself is only a means to an end - namely, victory in November. If a nominee has acquired the prize by a Pyrrhic victory, he or she might be at a disadvantage in the fall - and all who value the party's success will be worse off.

This implies that everybody in the party has a collective interest in a nomination battle that is efficient - one in which the nominee is selected with minimal cost to his or her general election prospects. The goals are therefore speediness and bloodlessness. The nominee should be chosen reasonably quickly so that he or she may pivot to the general campaign. Furthermore, the nominee's reputation should not be unduly damaged by the nomination battle.

Of course, the collective interests of a group often conflict with the personal interests of those within it. In those instances, individuals might pursue their immediate and tangible personal interests over the distant and hazy group interests. Thus, it is helpful to have a central authority with the power to induce individuals to support the collective good.

Ideally, this is the task of the RNC and the DNC. They are charged with managing their conventions, and by extension the nomination processes, to an efficient conclusion. However, they lack the power to constrain the actions of those within their respective parties. Instead, candidates, state parties, state governments, miscellaneous politicians, and interest groups can and do choose their personal good over the party's public good.

The national party organizations have never been powerful - and in the modern nomination era, their powerlessness has rarely been a problem. In most years, a frontrunner acquires an early, insurmountable lead, and the interests of the candidate and the party merge. In this candidate-centered age of politics, the presumptive nominee typically has the power to ensure that his interests are secured. This is essentially what has happened on the GOP side this year.

Meanwhile, there is no nominee on the Democratic side. There is instead a close race that the DNC cannot manage. The movers and shakers in the party have acted for the sake of their own interests, rather than the party as a whole. And so, the Democrats face the possibility of a brokered convention.

A few examples illustrate this point.

Last year, the DNC mandated that states and territories schedule their primaries or caucuses between February and June. However, it lacked the authority to enforce the mandate efficiently. When Michigan and Florida defied the DNC - the committee stripped them of their delegates. Unfortunately, this did not induce them to re-schedule, nor did it induce all candidates to remove themselves from all relevant ballots.

Obviously, Florida and Michigan were not motivated by the collective good of the Democratic Party. Quite unsurprisingly, they acted out of their own best interests. They wanted more influence in the process, as well as the economic benefits that accrue to the states with that privilege.

In another year, this story would have been an inconsequential footnote. The nominee would have been chosen quickly, and Florida and Michigan's delegates would have participated in the meaningless festivities of the convention. But there is no nominee yet, and there might not be one before the convention. In that case, there might be a showdown in the DNC's credentials committee over Michigan and Florida.

This poses two problems. First, this controversy might be enough for Clinton to perpetuate her fight to the convention - especially if she finishes strong. This, in turn, would distract Obama from preparing for the general election. Second, there might be confusion over who is the legitimate choice of the Democratic Party. Obama currently has a lead in pledged delegates and votes. However, factoring in Florida and Michigan will reduce the former and might eliminate the latter. It is conceivable that, after Democrats finish voting, both Clinton and Obama might be able to claim that they are the true choice of the party.

So, the DNC has been unable to manage the state parties, the state governments, and the candidates efficiently. Each has angled for its own good - and the good of the party is now in jeopardy.

Another difficulty comes with the superdelegates. These are elected Democrats, party luminaries, and party committee members who are guaranteed votes at the convention.

Ideally, there is some utility to the superdelegates. They effectively imply that a nominee must win a "super majority" of the pledged delegates to acquire the nomination. Thus, they can serve as a certification of the primary results.

However, the DNC places no constraints upon them. They are free to do whatever they like whenever they like. This year, this poses three distinct problems.

First, there is nothing to induce them to decide at any time prior to the first ballot on the convention floor. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we have seen a large portion of them hold back from endorsing one candidate or another. They seem to be waiting to move when the personal risks are minimal. As a consequence, the nomination battle drags on - and the last month has been very rough on the front running Obama.

Second, there is nothing that binds them to their endorsements. We saw this morning that former DNC chairman Joe Andrew switched his endorsement from Clinton to Obama to bring about a speedy end to the nomination. Ironically, Andrew's ability to switch his support might prolong the battle. Obama is closing Clinton's superdelegate lead now. If Clinton is ultimately able to make a credible claim that she is the choice of Democrats nationwide, what is to stop these superdelegates from returning to Clinton?

Third, there are no rules to guide the choices of the superdelegates. They can decide on whatever grounds they like. Thus, they could make the nomination process even more incoherent than it already is - as the collective choice of the superdelegates is merely an aggregation of irreconcilable individual motivations. If some choose based on electability, some choose based on legitimacy, some choose based on constituent instructions, and some choose based on personal preferences - the party risks a nominee who has acquired the nomination by seemingly arbitrary means.

All three of these issues imply confusion and delay. Howard Dean has said that he wants the superdelegates to decide by early June. This may in fact happen. Unfortunately, the absence of boundaries placed upon them mean that it might not happen, or that - even if it does happen - the event will be meaningless, as the apparent loser vows to try to flip the superdelegates to his or her side.

None of this implies that the convention will necessarily be brokered. There is a good chance it will not be - that Obama will find a way to push Clinton out prior to August. The point is that, for Democrats, the risk that it will be brokered is far too high. What is more, this is needless risk. There is no benefit the party receives for the risk of a brokered convention.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, it is too late for this cycle to intervene. Events will play out however they will - little can be done. However, I think this cycle provides an opportunity for both parties to think proactively about the next cycle, to consider strengthening their national party committees. Why not grant them the authority to control their own destinies, to manage their collective interests? It seems to me that such self-control would be a marked improvement over what we have now. I certainly think that - if Howard Dean had some real power to control those within his party's coalition - the Democrats would be in much less jeopardy.

Minimally, I would make the following suggestion. At its core, the current nomination system is a disjointed hybrid of the old, state party-centered way of choosing nominees and the new way that places power with rank-and-file partisans. The reforms of the 1970s did not amount to root-and-branch changes, but rather 20th century updates to a 19th century system.

Perhaps this accounts for the powerlessness of the national committees. They are tasked with bringing coherence to an incoherent system. I would suggest that whatever changes are made - whether the national parties are strengthened or not - the goal should be to impose coherence of form and purpose. Right now, both processes have one foot in the past and one foot in the present. This is, I think, unsustainable in the long run.

Thank you.

-Jay Cost

Delegates to Dean: Make Us

Howard Dean was on Wolf Blitzer's show yesterday, and Drudge picked up his admonition to the superdelegates with the splashy headline: "Dean To Delegates: Decide Now." In the interview, Dean says that he wants the superdelegates to begin "voting" now. "We cannot give up two or three months of active campaigning and healing time," he said. "We've got to know who our nominee is."

Unfortunately for the party, Dean is in no position to tell the superdelegates when to decide. The reason? The chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee carries with it very little political power - certainly not enough to sway superdelegates.

It has been this way for a very long time. Fifty years ago, political scientists thought of the political parties as "truncated pyramids." The idea behind this metaphor is that it was the state parties that were really in charge. The national parties were powerless organization that few paid attention to. In fact, while digging through the scholarly literature on the parties from the 50s and 60s, I could only find two major works on the national committees. One of them is Politics Without Power. In it, Cornelius Cotter and Bernard Hennessy argue that the DNC and RNC were basically ad hoc entities without coherent organizational structures. They were there to be used by the president for his electoral purposes and, when the President was of a different party, to host the national conventions. That's it.

Flash forward to the 1970s. There's a convergence of two trends in electoral politics. First is the rise of television and the mass media campaign. This induced a great need for campaign cash. Second is the imposition of the Federal Elections Campaign Act (FECA) of 1972, and the 1974 amendments that limited the amount of money that candidates could collect from individuals. This gave the national parties a new task - legal money laundering. This is their essential function today. All six national party organizations (the two national committees plus the four Hill committees) collect large sums of cash by waving the party banner, and then distribute this money to candidates. The Hill committees help candidates for the House and the Senate. During presidential elections, the national committees primarily help the presidential candidates - which is exactly what John McCain and the RNC are working out right now.

The key word is "help." The consensus among political scientists is that the national parties do not impose some kind of "party will." My research has found that this consensus, while essentially true, is overstated. The national parties do exercise some political power over candidates. However, it is only a modest amount.

Relevant to the issue of the Democratic nomination, there is no formal mechanism for Dean to exercise power over superdelegates. Nor, for that matter, is this a power the DNC chairman has ever typically had. He has not been a party strongman. As noted above, in the days when there were party strongmen, the state parties ruled the roost. They supplied the smoke for the smoke-filled rooms.

Dean, of course, might have some informal power - perhaps thanks to the "50 State Strategy," which has tried to rehabilitate atrophied state parties. Some superdelegates might owe him a favor or two. However, I doubt that this would imply influence over the congressional superdelegates. Furthermore, Dean is a bit of a lame duck. His term is up next year. If the Democrats win the election in November, what we will likely see at the DNC is an adjustment to fit the needs and preferences of the President. This is typical. For instance, David Wilhelm, Clinton's campaign manager, became DNC chair in 1993.

Here we can appreciate how the national committees are still a bit like the powerless organizations that Cotter and Hennessy found. Unlike the Hill committees, they are "captured" by the President for his term in office. This makes it difficult to develop long-range institutional goals, and therefore difficult to exercise real power. Ironically, if the Democrats do win the election in November, that might mean the end of the "50 State Strategy." If President Obama or President Clinton doesn't buy into it, we can be confident that the new chairman will discontinue it.

To understand this nomination battle, we need to adjust our image of the national parties. The best way to think of them is as little more than guidance counselors with bank accounts. The candidates are in charge. Contrary to what Blitzer says in the aforementioned interview, Dean is not the "leader of the Democratic Party." That's a mischaracterization of the role of the DNC and its chairman.

It is instructive to contrast the changes in the parties with the changes in the government. The 20th century saw a federalization of many governmental tasks. Matters previously entrusted to state governments were turned over to the federal government. The parties had a completely different experience. The powers of the state parties were handed over to candidates for office, not to the federal parties. The role of the parties now is essentially to serve the electoral needs of those candidates.

This is why the "Democratic Party" cannot stop this nomination race. There is no party entity with the power to say, "OK, you two. Enough is enough." In keeping with the "candidate control" model of electoral politics, the only two who can stop it are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. That's the modern party system for you. 20th century reformers thought the parties were meddling institutions that corrupted the political process. So, they stripped them of their power. Accordingly, the Democrats are at the mercy of their candidates.

Footnote: if you listen to Dean's interview, he says that some superdelegates have already "voted," and that he wants the rest to "vote" soon. This is not how the superdelegate system works. Dean knows that, and I think what he is trying to do is spin things a little bit. The fact is that the superdelegates have only endorsed candidates so far. They vote in Denver. Not before. What they say today does not necessarily constrain their votes in Denver. So, we should expect that, if the race remains close through the summer, both Obama and Clinton will work to "flip" superdelegates.

-Jay Cost

What's So Bad about the Super Delegates?

Last week I wrote an essay in praise of the Democratic super delegates. I argued that in comparison to the Republicans - they offer real advantages. They serve as a kind of "majority maker" for the party. When a candidate has not won a 3/5ths majority of pledged delegates, the super delegates break the "tie." The Republicans have a "majority maker" solution, too: most states free their pledged delegates after a few ballots. The Democrats' solution is better. Super delegates are free to negotiate whenever they like; they have an interest in finding a candidate who is best for the party; and they have the capacity to engage in the difficult process of negotiation.

However, there are problems with the super delegates. Democrats clearly sense this - perhaps this is driving their desire to wrap the primary up. From a certain perspective, this is a strange preference. Isn't this robust contest helping the party think about its future? Isn't it helping the candidates sharpen their skills? And yet, neutral Democrats would probably be glad to see the race end on Tuesday. From another perspective, this is a highly reasonable thing to desire. While the Democratic process is preferable to the Republican one, it is still inefficient. Democrats have reasons to doubt they can trust the super delegates to do a good job concluding the contest.

The core problem is that the Democrats have empowered the super delegates to break a tie, but they have not empowered anybody to manage the super delegates. There are no rules that demand the super delegates convene and discuss with one another. There is nobody in charge of regulating the debate. There is nothing to punish the super delegates who are small-minded, nothing to reward the big-minded. There are no time restrictions that require them to make up their minds prior to the convention. They are wholly unfettered.

Thus, the super delegates have a great deal in common with a mob. They're a mob of experienced, qualified politicos who care about the party. If the Democratic Party were to be put at the mercy of a mob - this is the mob you'd want. But it is a mob nonetheless. This is why large institutions - like the House and the Senate - have reams of rules governing member behavior. If the members of those institutions are to do their jobs ably, they need a framework for interaction. Otherwise, their talents may be squandered amidst the chaos.

Let's look in depth at one potential problem.

Earlier this week, I argued that each super delegate has a personal interest and a public interest that could factor into their decisions. For instance, each House Democrat has an opinion about who is best for the party. This would be his or her public interest. Each also has a personal interest in being reelected, and this might include placating constituents by voting as they did. This would be his or her personal interest. For many super delegates, there would be no conflict. Their constituents voted the way they prefer. But for some, there will be a conflict - as seems to have been the case with John Lewis. These super delegates face a version of what is known as the dilemma of collective action. Do they pay personal costs for a public benefit, or do they sacrifice the good of the party for their own good?

Let's take a look at a simple, stylized interaction that teases out some implications. Assume there are just two super delegates, both of whom face a conflict between their public and personal goals. Each gets a choice to go one way or the other. Additionally:

- Suppose that if both delegates do what is best for the party - the party appears to be responsible to the public. So, both delegates get a benefit of P. But doing so sacrifices their personal interests, so they pay a cost of -C.

-Both delegates also have an option of doing what is best for themselves. If they do this, they get a benefit of C (regardless of what the other does). However, if one of them chooses to elevate himself above his party, the party will not appear responsbile - and both will pay a cost of -P.

-Accordingly, if both do what is best for the party, both get a benefit of P - C. If both do what is best for themselves, both get a benefit of C - P. If one works for the party and the other for himself, the first gets a benefit of -C - P, and the second gets a benefit of C - P.

These payoffs can be modeled in a two-by-two matrix. One actor "plays" the rows. The other "plays" the columns. Both choose whether to do what is best for the party or best for himself. The actor playing the rows gets the first payoff in each cell, the actor playing the columns gets the second. The generic form of the interaction would look like this:

Game 1.gif

Let's set C = 5 and P = 7. This implies that both candidates enjoy a greater benefit from helping the party than they do from helping themselves. In other words, this is what Democrats would want from the super delegates. What would the interaction look like then?

Game 2.gif

At first blush, one might think that there is a simple solution: both candidates do what is best for the party in the top-left cell. While this is a possible solution (or equilibrium), and it is socially efficient, there is another solution. The bottom-right cell, in which both candidates do what is best for themselves, could also be the outcome of the interaction. This one is socially inefficient. In other words, this interaction could result in the efficient outcome where both support the party or an inefficient outcome where neither does.

This is where some kind of institution could come in handy. That is, some rule or person could alter the payoffs to ensure that the delegates choose what is best for the party. How might this work? Suppose that the super delegates knew that if they support the party, they would be personally reimbursed for their loyalty. This might come in the form of flattering publicity, policy considerations down the line, campaign contributions to offset any electoral danger they may face, or whatever. The point is they know that supporting the party would offer some side benefit that is just theirs. They also know that this benefit is theirs regardless of what the other delegate does. That would change the game to the following by inserting a loyalty (L) factor for delegates who support the party.

That is:

Game 3.gif

Let's set L = 12 and re-run the interaction, retaining C = 5 and P = 7.

Game 4.gif

There is a single solution/equilibrium to this game. Review the options of the row chooser. Note that regardless of what the column chooser decides, he is best off serving the party. If the column chooser goes with the party, the row chooser gets -2 going for himself or 14 going for the party. If the column chooser goes for himself, the row chooser gets -2 going for himself or 0 going for the party. So, his rational move is always to go for the party. The same goes for the column chooser. Thus, both delegates will choose what is best for the party. The difference here is that loyalty factor. What it did was reward the delegates for supporting the party regardless of what the other does. This shifted their strategies.

This sort of personal payoff is actually quite common. If you have ever received a tote bag from PBS, you have received a personal payoff for helping a broader goal. This is what institutions can do. They can offer personal benefits to individuals to guide interactions to the socially efficient outcome. It need not be benefits. We could inverse the above interaction. Instead of a +12 loyalty benefit, we could have a -12 disloyalty penalty. It would have the same effect. This is one reason why the government is empowered to penalize tax cheats.

Mechanisms like this do not exist with the super delegates. They are in an institutional vacuum where there are no rules to govern their behavior, let alone dispense personal benefits if they put the party above themselves. Now, it might be that the preferences of the super delegates are arranged in such a way that an institutional mechanism like a tote bag is not necessary. Indeed, you could reassign the values of C and P in the first game so that both super delegates choose to support the party (e.g. re-run the first game setting C = 0). The preferences of super delegates need not be arranged in a socially inefficient way. But that misses the point. The point is that they need not be arranged in a socially efficient way, either. And if they are not - there is no "tote bag" provision to induce a socially efficient result.

One way or the other, the super delegates will make a choice, and the party is going to have a nominee. The question is how costly it will be to get this nominee. And this is what efficiency is all about - achieving an outcome while minimizing costs.

What are some of the costs that the Democrats will face because there are no rules? So far, we have hinted at the specter of illegitimacy. That is, one candidate wins because he or she is good for particular super delegates, not the party. Another cost could be delay. Because they are not required to do anything until Denver, they might not do anything until then. This would mean that Democrats will face a primary battle that ends six months from now. While I think most would agree that it would do the party no harm to have the primary last another two months, six months would be genuinely harmful. Waiting until Denver also means making a decision under intense, worldwide scrutiny. Party politics is not meant for such a close look. It's inevitably narrow-minded: personal concerns always come to influence what non-partisans think is a strictly public matter. Party deal-making is an illiberal part of any liberal society such as ours, but that does not mean the public will accept it. On the contrary, it will probably turn off the average voter who sees the deal go down on live television.

There are all sorts of other costs. None of them derive from the super delegates themselves. As I argued last week, the super delegate provision is a good "majority maker" solution. The problem is that they are free to do whatever they want.

Personally, I find this lamentable. It seems to me that the Democrats are in the midst of a robust, valuable debate about the future of their party. The fact that it does not involve sharp policy differences is a non sequitur. One need not discuss policy to be substantive. If the RCP average is any metric - it is an argument that neither side has won. And yet, lots of worried Democrats want it over. They doubt the capacity of the party organization to resolve the conflict. They are wise to have these doubts. Because they are unbound by rules of any kind, the fact that the super delegates will break the tie is a disaster waiting to happen.

But why are the super delegates so free? The Democrats have lousy rules that nobody cared to revise in the last quarter century because the best and brightest in American politics don't give a damn about the party organization. This is part of a decades-long trend in American politics. The party institutions have been taken for granted. They no longer play a vital role in daily American political life, so they are left to decay - until we need them. At which point, they are incapable of doing their job.

Americans like to think that strong parties are an impediment to democracy - and so, the weaker they are the better we are. They are wrong. Strong parties are an asset to democracy. The happenings on the Democratic side indicate what can happen when the parties are weak. The Democrats are in the midst of a animated discussion that many of the conversants want to end because the party organization is incompetent. What a shame.

-Jay Cost

What's So Great About the Super Delegates?

With the Democratic race as close as it is, analysts are paying attention to the so-called "super delegates" - namely, the 800 or so party leaders who get to vote however they want, regardless of any primary or caucus result.

What should we make of these delegates? Many analysts seem to approach them with a critical, negative assumption. I think that is presumptuous. I'd like to approach them from a neutral starting point to delineate the strengths and weaknesses that they bring to the nomination process. Tomorrow, we'll look at the weaknesses. Today, let's review the strengths.

At the outset, we should note the super delegates could only be a factor when no candidate wins an outright majority with pledged delegates. This indicates one way the nomination battle differs from most American elections: a plurality of votes is insufficient for victory. A corollary is the Electoral College. If no candidate wins an outright majority of electors - the House of Representatives decides the race.

Just as the Constitution uses the House in the absence of a majority winner, the Democrats use the super delegates. This demonstrates the need for a contingency plan in a majority rule election. Most of us usually never think about this because, outside Louisiana, American elections are decided by plurality rule, i.e. where the winner is simply the person who gets the most votes. There are costs and benefits to both rules. Obviously, with majority systems you need some sort of mechanism to sort out the mess when nobody wins a majority. Plurality systems do not require this - and so they may seem less arbitrary. On the other hand, plurality systems can and often do yield a "perverse" result - a candidate whom most voters opposed nevertheless wins.

One might respond that the Republicans have no such contingency plan for their nomination - even though their nominee is also selected by majority rule. So, why must the Democrats? In fact, the Republicans do have a plan. Theirs is just informal. The Republican solution is that most delegates become like super delegates after a few rounds of balloting. Some Republican delegates are obligated to their candidate as long as he is in the race - but most of them are free to vote their consciences after a few rounds.

This offers a different way to understand the super delegates. Perhaps they seem more reasonable than they first appeared. Every majority system must have some kind of contingency plan for when nobody has won a majority. If we accept the legitimacy of the majority requirement (and why wouldn't we?), we necessarily accept the need for a "majority maker" clause. The Constitution uses the House. Louisiana uses a run-off. The Republicans create de facto super delegates out of the rank-and-file. The Democrats give that power to party leaders.

So, the real question is how good is the Democratic solution? I think it has several advantages over the Republican one.

First, I think that if you are going to make any type of delegate "super" - it is best to make it the party leaders. They are most likely to have the interests of the party as a whole close to heart. To appreciate this, imagine what would happen if there were a knockdown, drag-out fight between McCain and Romney. The only concern on the minds of McCain delegates would be getting the nomination to McCain. Ditto the Romney delegates. But who is looking out for the party? Which delegates will calmly recognize that the elevation of their man would require a nasty battle that might do damage to the party's prospects? Neither. The McCain delegates would probably prefer a nasty floor fight that McCain wins to a cordial process that he loses because their paramount concern is the success of their candidate. Ditto the Romney delegates.

Of course, it is possible that no Republican delegates would behave in such a "narrow" fashion. The trouble for the GOP is that it is also possible that all of them would. This chance is much reduced on the Democratic side because party regulars are intimately involved. They are more likely to care deeply about the party's broader interests. Thus, they can help broker a deal that brings peace to the convention, which is good for the party.

Second, party regulars are more "qualified" to handle a situation in which a deal must be brokered, and making them super delegates gives them the power to do it. To appreciate this, consider the relationship between the House and the Senate. The House was originally envisioned to be the body with the direct link to the public. Accordingly, all tax bills must originate in the House. On the other hand, the Framers gave the Senate functions like ratifying treaties, and confirming officers of the executive and judicial branches. The Senate was ideally to be populated with wise men who could negotiate situations that might be too sensitive for the more raucously democratic House.

We can see a similar logic differentiating the pledged and super delegates. Pledged delegates are certainly politically active - but they need not be professional pols, schooled in the ways of political horse-trading. The super delegates, who are professional or retired political operatives, are well-suited for the negotiating what would have to happen if no candidate wins a majority of delegates. This kind of wheeling and dealing might not be as easy as it appears. If no candidate has a majority, somebody is going to have to switch their votes. They are not going to do that out of the goodness of their hearts. They will need some kind of consideration in return. This type of situation requires a deft touch, which a professional politician is more likely to possess. If the job was left entirely to rank-and-file delegates, all of whom are passionately committed to their candidate - it is easy to envision one faction alienating or offending another due to their inexperience at negotiation or their enthusiasm for their cause.

Third, the super delegates are free to coordinate well in advance of the convention - whereas pledged delegates are not. To appreciate the value of this, it is again instructive to compare the Democrats to the Republicans. Modern communications technology has altered the role of the convention. Party members no longer need to gather in one place to determine whom they prefer. This, in turn, enables them to coordinate long before the convention. That being said, most Republican delegates face an impediment to early coordination that the Democratic super delegates do not. Most Republican delegates are usually bound to one candidate or another for at least a few ballots. This surely complicates pre-convention deal making. It would be hard to work out an arrangement that cannot take effect until the third (maybe even the fourth) ballot. Participants in the deal might have to vote insincerely for the first few rounds to prevent an undesirable result. This enhances the likelihood that a mistake, misunderstanding, or just a shifting situation will kill the deal. It is just a level of complexity that gets in the way of a quick, easy resolution. The Democratic super delegates do not face this problem. They could begin working on a deal right now that could be put into effect on the first ballot.

These three traits are all strengths because they enhance efficiency. That is, they help secure the party a nominee while minimizing the "transaction costs" inherent to any kind of mass gathering. This is an important characteristic for a process like this. Being the nominee brings nobody - be it the candidate or the rank-and-file - any real benefit. It is simply a means to an end, which is victory in November. The more efficient the nomination process, the better positioned everybody in the party is for the general election. Nobody in the party has an interest in a tortuous convention that takes a long, painful time to find a nominee. The super delegates serve as a preventative measure. By virtue of their interest in the health of the party, their experience with deal making, and their freedom to maneuver - they can help the party avoid a messy floor flight.

All in all, I think the Democrat's "majority maker" solution is much more efficient than the Republican's. Of course, it might not seem to matter in a year like this. This is not a three-way race; thus, one candidate might be able to win a bare majority of the pledged delegates. However, it all depends on how strict the definition of "majority" is. I think the Democrats have a stricter definition of "majority" than the Republicans, and this is a prudent move.

To win the nomination without the intervention of the super delegates, a candidate must win 62.25% of all pledged delegates. [i.e. He or she must win a bare majority, or 2,025, of the total delegates. There are 3,253 pledged delegates; thus, a majority that comes through only the pledged delegates would be 2,025 / 3,253 = 62.25% of pledged delegates.] So, winning the nomination through the primary/caucus route is more like getting a bill passed in the Senate than in the House. You need a super majority of pledged delegates.

The prudence of this requirement can be seen if we imagine the process without the super delegates: all a candidate must do is win a bare majority of the pledged delegates. Now, factor in all of the quirky twists and turns we have seen this cycle. Start saying aloud all of those questions you have been whispering for a few weeks. Should we seat the Michigan delegates? What about the Florida delegates? Is the caucus system appropriate for selecting delegates, or should we stick with the primary system? What happens if a candidate wins the big states but loses the little states? What happens if a candidate comes on strong at the end, but does not win enough delegates? What if the party as a whole starts to feel buyer's remorse after a candidate has won a bare majority of pledged delegates? There are all sorts of ways in which a simple majority of delegates might not be sufficient to give the impression of legitimacy, which is a very important value for a nominee to possess. By requiring a candidate to win 62.25% of the pledged delegates - you greatly reduce the likelihood that all of those lingering, partisan-twinged (don't forget the Republicans are watching!) questions could influence perceptions of legitimacy.

And what happens when there is less than this super majority? The decision is left to the super delegates, who - by virtue of the three aforementioned qualities of interest, capacity, and freedom - are in the best position to disentangle which candidate is the "legitimate" nominee. The super delegates are majority makers if we take the definition of majority a bit more strictly. This, I think, points to a counter-intuitive advantage that they offer. Whereas most analysts seem to assume that they are inherently de-legitimizing - I think the opposite is true.

Nevertheless, there are problems with the super delegates. While they might be an improvement over the Republican way of doing business, they present some difficulties that might cause real headaches for the Democrats. We shall discuss this tomorrow.

-Jay Cost

The Primary System and Party Responsibility

On Monday I sounded off about the relationship between Ron Paul and the Republican Party. My argument was that the fact that such a "bad" Republican like Ron Paul could maintain his position in the party is a sign that the party itself lacks mechanisms to manage its brand identity.

I received a lot of email from Paul supporters. Most of them argued some variant of the proposition that Paul is the only true Republican - and George Bush and the "neocons" are the cheaters. This is all well and good - but this is not what I was on about. I was not speaking in normative terms - hence the consistent use of scare quotes. You can argue that the Republican Party has become corrupted, and Paul is the only pure one left - but all you are doing is changing the adjectives around. What matters is that Paul diverges greatly from the caucus average, and that the caucus lacks the power to keep Paul in line - thus, it has trouble establishing a brand. So, I was not assigning moral blame.

Furthermore, I was not arguing that Paul is the major contributor to the problem of establishing a GOP brand. I used him only as an example because he is in the news a lot. Personally, I think that more damage has been done to the Republican Party brand by George W. Bush.

This brings me to my final point of clarification. Paul's supporters also argued that George W. Bush and the Republican caucus are the ones who have strayed from what they promised they would do, and that they are the ones to blame. I agree - so much so that on Monday I made this exact argument! The caucus lacks the power to induce members to enact what the party promised during the last campaign. Hence, it has trouble maintaining a brand.

With that digression now ended, I want to continue working through the ideas I began on Monday. I'd like to offer some tentative thoughts on how we can induce more responsibility from our governing party. How can we get the party to make coherent campaign promises on the vital issues of the day, and then actually deliver on those promises if electoral victory is obtained.

Ultimately, the Constitution itself prevents the full realization of responsible party government. One of the most obvious impediments is staggered elections. This has created a problem for Democrats - in the person of George W. Bush. He was elected in 2004 when the public had a very different view of matters - and that old view has thwarted the Democrats' attempts to translate the new view into policy. Old electoral returns are "sticky" in our system. A single election will not necessarily undue an old governing majority. That is what happens when a House seat is up every two years, a Senate seat is up every six years, and the presidency is up every four years.

Another impediment to responsibility is the geographical basis of representation. A Democratic legislator from Georgia may be acting according to the state party's wishes and against the national party's wishes at the same time - in which case, it becomes difficult to identify whether he is being responsible or not. So, when we talk about responsibility, we are talking about increasing party responsibility given the nature of our system of government. The goal should be a system that is responsible relative to the current one. So, with this in mind, how to we increase party responsibility?

There are, as best I can tell, two general ways to do this. On the one hand, you could increase the power that the legislative caucus leadership has over rank-and-file party legislators. On the other hand, you could increase the power that the party organization - defined however you'd like - has over the legislators. You could also do both. I think that empowering the party organization is more viable and more desirable. It also happens to be within my domain of professional knowledge (at least more so than the organization of Congress). So, that is what I am going to discuss today. Let's modifiy the question. How do we empower the party organization to induce legislators to be responsible to the electorate?

Obviously, this question is more of a concern for Democrats than Republicans these days. The Democrats are the ones who now have to govern. Unsurprisingly, you'll find Democratic activists in the blogosophere struggling with the question.

Matt Stoller comes instantly to mind. He has been advocating that the netroots begin to tend to wayward Democratic legislators. He wants to monitor a set of congressmen whom he calls "Bush Dog Democrats," and he wants to make more use of the primary - to take the Ned Lamont prototype and mass produce it. This is basically a way to induce partisan responsibility. The underlying logic of his thesis - which is encapsulated here and here - is that if Democrats face a significant threat from the party base, they will be much more likely to be "good" Democrats when they are in office. Thus, the party as a whole will be better able to make clear promises in the electoral campaign, and it will be more likely to fulfill those promises once control of government has been acquired.

Over on another corner of this site, Kevin Sullivan has labeled this kind of activity "purging." I disagree with Kevin's word choice here - or at least with what his choice of words implies, which is something unjust and undemocratic. I view the activity of monitoring and potentially punishing wayward Democratic legislators as something perfectly just and highly democratic. The only way that the Democrats are going to do what they promised as a party they would do is if they have control over their wayward members.

Now - Stoller is a partisan Democrat. And regular readers of mine know that I am far from that. But I would argue that both Republican and Democratic activists have an interest in increasing party responsibility. So, I think there is some common ground to be found here. We can disagree on substance, but agree on process.

I certainly think we can all agree that this is a tricky problem, and that it probably contributed to the end of the GOP majority. I talked about this earlier in the week. The Republicans never changed any of our democratic institutions - and so, incumbents were left free to do as they wished. Unsurprisingly, most of the promises they made in 1994 were eventually sacrificed for the sake of electoral expediency. Indeed, it was never my impression that GOP activists put much thought into institutional reforms - at least after they stopped talking about term limits. Today, the laments of GOP activists often seem to me to be reducible to the "great man" theory of politics: "Why oh why did a new Reagan not emerge to maintain the revolution? When oh when will our next Reagan come to restart the revolution?" Republicans would have been much better off had they instead taken Madison's view of things: "Reagan blazed a trail for us. But we can't always depend upon a Reagan. How do we move forward on this trail, assuming that we have leaders who are distinctly less estimable than Reagan?"

Democrats like Stoller seem to be a step ahead - recognizing that our democratic institutions, being utilized as they are today, are not going to help achieve responsibility. Perhaps this is because the left does not at present have a folklore hero the way the right has Reagan. I do not know. I do think that the left is putting more thought into these types of questions than the right did during its time in control.

So, far from a purging, I see this essay by Stoller as an attempt to answer the type of questions that a new majority needs to answer if it wishes to be responsible.

Stoller suggests that Democrats reinvigorate the primary system. He identifies four positive consequences that a reinvigoratzed Democratic primary process would engender:

(1) It makes it easier for Democratic activists to be involved in party affairs.
(2) It gets more people involved in politics.
(3) It gives Democratic voters a voice in party affairs.
(4) It is a "check on calcification and corruption within the party."

I see all four of these being related to the concept of responsibility that I have been discussing on this blog. Stoller wants Democratic legislators to be responsive to the priorities of voters in their districts, to run for election promising to solve these problems, and then to solve those problems once victory has been obtained. His vision of the primary process is one that would engender mass participation among Democratic voters, and great responsiveness from Democratic candidates.

The problem with this, at least as I see it, is that it does not account fully for a necessary operating assumption about electoral politics: serious candidates for office are rational goal-seekers, and their goal is electoral victory.

If the strategy is to increase party responsibility by offering intra-party electoral challenges, you are going to need quality challengers. There is no other way around it. Only good candidates can invigorate elections. Stoller seems to agree with this point - but it seems that we disagree about whether quality challengers can emerge in a nominating process dominated by primaries. I do not think they can - at least in any kind of systemic fashion.

The reason I think this is reducible to a simple cost-benefit calculation that every quality challenger will conduct for himself. Quality challengers run because they are ambitious. They run to win, and they know that incumbents bring major advantages to any electoral contest, especially the primaries. They know that these advantages are so great that it is not worth the trouble. The costs outweigh the benefits.

In the primary, not only do incumbents have great financial benefits - they can also expect to have the party establishment behind them. The establishment will always prefer a partisan legislator who does not toe the party line to somebody from the opposition - just as it prefers an irresponsible majority to the minority. What is more, the establishment knows that incumbents, all things being equal, are more likely to win. So, the party establishment will almost never support the challenger. More than this - it may also attempt to quash serious opposition. Indeed, I have seen it happen. I have talked to "insurgent" candidates in state legislative races, party regulars who decided to take a shot at "jumping the line" and who, as a consequence of their insolence, were deprived of resources that they once had access to as members of the local party.

All of this has the effect of discouraging serious primary challengers. They want to win, they expect that they will not, so they do not run. It is a simple matter of costs versus benefits. You'll find exceptions here and there - but the cost-benefit calculation that a serious potential candidate conducts will almost invariably come out in the negative. Stoller identifies the cultural context of the primary as a principal barrier to a more robust set of challengers. I would agree that there is such a cultural context - that a primary challenge is just an "untoward" thing to do in our political culture - but even if these barriers are mitigated, the economics remain decisive.

Accordingly, I would encourage party reformers on both sides - Republicans who lament the irresponsibility of the GOP in the most recent Congresses, and Democrats who fear the same fate will befall them - to be more adventurous in their thinking, and not presume that the democratic mechanisms currently at their disposal will help them achieve responsibility. I don't think they will. Reformers should also be skeptical of the hidden assumption that the primary is the only truly democratic way to nominate party candidates - and all other mechanisms are less democratic. The primary system was not handed down to Moses by God on Mount Zion. It was a solution established at a particular point in time to deal with a particular set of problems. It may have outlived its usefulness.

Indeed, I think it has. One of the purposes of the primary system was to obliterate the power of the irresponsible machine parties. These were organizations that did indeed possess power, but used them not for the public good, but to provide supporters with personal benefits. The primary system undermined these old parties - and it certainly did us all a favor in that regard. But, it never created a responsible party. Instead, we have candidate controlled - or should I say incumbent controlled - electoral politics where hardly any incumbent gets a serious general election challenge, let alone a primary challenge.

What is needed is some kind of electoral mechanism that lowers the costs to both quality candidates and the party establishment. What we need is a situation in which serious candidates are more likely to think that a challenge of a "bad" incumbent is worth the effort, and a party establishment that does not believe that a successful primary challenge means a loss in November. Simply stated, we need to get the top tier candidates and the party leaders comfortable with challenging the louses in Congress.

At this point, I have not settled upon a solution to this problem - but the more I think about it, the more attracted I am to a return to the convention system. Now - if you are younger than 40, your idea of a convention is probably the silly, staged media event that the parties throw every year. If you are older than 40, you idea is probably something akin to Chicago '68. The former viewpoint is a consequence of public disgust with the latter viewpoint. Conventions were largely done away with because they had become the domain of plutocratic party leaders who imposed their will on the mass public.

But they were not meant to be that way. They were not the creation of plutocrats. They were co-opted by plutocrats. They were originally a product of the "revolution" led and inspired by one of America's greatest democrats (and first Democrat), Andrew Jackson. Their initial intention was to democratize the nomination of candidates, which was previously done by legislative caucuses. Personally, I think that the convention process could be revitalized, and it could move us toward responsibility. With an eye to the errors of the past - reformers could redesign the system to serve as a check against "calcified" incumbents.

What I would like to see is a convention system where party leaders, party workers, and party activists come together to nominate party candidates for state offices. A convention system could drastically reduce the cost of getting rid of a legislator who "cheats" the party. The cheater simply loses the floor vote, which is cast by the people who are most knowledgeable about party affairs, most interested in party success, and most dedicated to the principles of the party. This would change the incentive structure of legislators all over the country. If they knew that, before they had the privilege of facing the voters in the general election, they must stand before the people who make up the party whose label they carry - they might begin to behave much more responsibly, i.e. to do in government what they said they would do during the campaign.

A major concern would be representativeness within the convention. Does the convention reflect the wishes of the broader partisan public, or has it been "captured" by elites with their own agenda? In this regard, the findings and suggestions of the McGovern-Fraser commission could be quite useful - at least as a guide to keeping the process open. It would be important, I think, to have a mix of professionals and activists. They tend to have different goals. Professional party members prefer electoral victory first and foremost because it is in their professional interests. Activists, on the other hand, are much more interested in policy. This could create a good mix of pragmatism and idealism at a party convention.

But isn't this less democratic than the primary system? Stoller argues that the primary system is a core Democratic value. Again, I'm not a Democrat - but I can't help but wonder about that. My feeling is that - so long as participation in the convention process is left relatively open - measuring the "democraticness" of the primary and the convention is somewhat like comparing apples to oranges. Ideally speaking, the primary process is open to everybody. So, it maximizes participation. But, on the other hand, the primary itself does not induce deliberation among the voters. A convention would. Delegates at a convention would have to argue with one another, and hammer out an agreement. This would probably be more in line with the ideal of deliberative democracy. So, there is a tradeoff between the two.

But I think that more can be said in favor of the convention idea. Back in the 1950s, V.O. Key found that the primary system seemed to have the effect of atrophying party organizations. This makes intuitive sense. In districts where the party is split 60/40, there is no reason for the "40" party to maintain a robust organization. After all, it will almost always lose. But, if the party in that district gets to participate in the state convention - there is a reason for the party to maintain itself. It has the job of selecting members for the state convention. This, Key speculated, had the effect of making 60/40 districts more competitive. After all, in some years 60/40 districts can become 50/50 or even 40/60. And, in years like that, the out party is only going to be able to take advantage of the shift in voter opinion if it is organizationally ready. The convention process therefore had the effect of keeping the party organizations prepared for their once-in-a-decade opportunity. And what is the net result? Better choices for the electorate and more competitive elections.

As you might have inferred, these suggestions are still somewhat tentative. Through the course of my research, I have become well aware of the problems that I discussed on Monday. However, I have not yet fully settled upon any ideas as to how to solve it - I have more research to do. I would encourage party reformers on both sides to take a long, hard look at the reforms of the first party system that Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren instituted. I think there is a great deal of promise there. It is something that I intend to look more closely at as I "wrap up" other projects which I am currently involved in. Their system was corrupted and coopted by plutocrats - but that is not to say that their initial vision cannot be reworked into a viable program for party responsibility.

-Jay Cost

Ron Paul and The Party Brand

Last week I wrote a column about how the dust up with Larry Craig reveals some overlooked truths about the American political party. My point was that the contemporary party is not very powerful. It cannot exercise much control over its members in the legislature, and therefore it is difficult for the party to be responsible to the electorate - to do in government what it promised to do during the campaign. Our politics is "candidate controlled," and the party's impotence in dealing with Larry Craig points to the truth of this proposition.

In other words, the party has very little power over candidates - who they are, what positions they take, what issues they emphasize, how they choose to campaign, what they do once they acquire office, and so on. My argument last week was that the idea of a powerful political party is really a trick of the light. It is a consequence of the fact that individual legislators and candidates happen to have relatively uniform issue positions. If a candidate wants to "cheat" on the party, there is very little that the party can do to stop him.

This brings me to Ron Paul. He is perhaps the greatest example today of party impotence. Ron Paul is not a good Republican as far as the GOP caucus is concerned. If you examine Paul's voting record, it appears as though he is a moderate. His average National Journal economic policy rating from 1997 to 2004 is 51.6% conservative. For social policy, it is 53% conservative. For foreign policy, it is 40.5% conservative. One would think, based upon this data, that Paul is ideologically similar to representatives like Chris Shays or Mike Castle - with the exception being that he is a little on the dovish side. But, this would be wrong. Paul's ostensible moderation is really a consequence of the fact that National Journal's ranking system is two-dimensional. Paul is a libertarian - and his ideology cannot be captured by a simple liberal-conservative metric.

I would argue that Paul does indeed "cheat" on the party brand.

The party brand is the mental image that people have of what it means to be a member of a particular party. It is the commonly accepted answer to the question: if that party acquires control of government, what will it do? The brand is something that benefits all party candidates for office because it reduces uncertainty. It is a quick heuristic device for the average voter to use to guide his vote choice. Because it provides voters with low cost information, it makes their actions more predictable, and therefore reduces the uncertainty that office seekers face when they run for election.

The brand is maintained only through the issue positions that those candidates take during the campaign, and the votes they cast in the legislature. If Republican candidates take divergent issue positions in the campaign, there is no coherent sense one can get of what it means to be a Republican. Over the long run, the brand will decay. If the Republican majority does not do in office what it said it would do during the campaign, it again becomes difficult to understand what it means to be a Republican. Again, the brand will decay.

Importantly, note that a strong party brand is closely related to the concept of responsibility that I discussed last week. A responsible party is a party that runs on distinct issue positions in the election, and proceeds to do what it said it would do when it wins. So, a party with a strong brand identity is more likely to be a responsible party. A responsible party is more likely to have a strong brand identity.

Ron Paul "cheats" on the party brand because he does not contribute to its maintenance. His votes in Congress diverge greatly from the party line - and, as anybody who watches these debates knows, his campaign rhetoric is not even close to the party line. Now - before I start getting flamed by Paul's very web-savvy supporters, let me clarify what I mean by "cheats." I do not mean the word in a normative sense. I mean it in the rational choice sense of the term. My referent here is the concept of public goods.

Public goods are susceptible to this kind of cheating because they are non-excludable. Think of national defense. This is something that benefits all of us - but wouldn't you individually be better off if you did not pay for it (assuming, of course, that the IRS did not exist to audit you)? It is not like the government could punish you by not defending you. If they are defending your taxpaying neighbors, they will have to defend you, too! So, you have a rational incentive to "cheat" on a public good like national defense. In that situation, it is in your interests to receive all of the benefits and not pay any of the costs. This is cheating in a rational choice sense of the term (again, it is non-normative - so spare me your wrath, Paulites!)

The party label is a public good like national defense. It is non-excludable. By winning a party nomination, all of the benefits of the party label accrue to you regardless of whether you constrain your issue positions so they fit the broader party message. So, if it is not in your interests to contribute to the provision of the good, we should expect you not to do so.

This is how I see Ron Paul. Like all candidates with an "R" at the end of his name, he uses the label to acquire electoral office. He accrues the benefits that the party label provides. However, because he takes so many divergent issue positions both in the campaign and in Congress - he does not contribute to the maintenance of the brand. To put it intuitively, he's a libertarian who dresses up as a Republican. This is why I chuckle whenever he argues - which he often does in the debates - that he is the only true Republican in the field. If you define a Republican as a libertarian - then that would be the case!

So, why is it that the Republican Party stands beside him every election? It is because there is nothing it can do about him. Return to the national defense metaphor - and ask yourself why a rational person actually pays his taxes. It is because the federal government has established mechanisms to monitor people and punish those who fail to do their part. National defense is a public good - but the federal government has instituted a private bad to make sure that nobody cheats.

Simply stated, the party lacks the ability to impose such private bads. The party has few viable enforcement mechanisms to ensure that its members do their part to maintain the party brand. Paul ran for the seat in 1996 as the "insurgent" candidate against the Democrat-turned-Republican Greg Laughlin, who had the support of the party leadership both in Washington and in Texas. Paul used his network of libertarians and "gold bugs" to raise nearly $2 million and win the seat out from under the party establishment. Since then, the GOP establishment has never challenged him, despite the fact that he is - according to Michael Barone - the least reliable vote in the entire GOP caucus. The reason is that the mechanism for intra-party staff changes, the party primary, is a highly inefficient enforcement mechanism. The expected costs to the party for challenging Paul in the primary greatly outweigh the benefits it could expect to accrue from the challenge. Imagine what would happen if the GOP establishment got behind a serious challenge to Paul. He would probably survive - but could a weakened Paul survive a general election fight against the Democrat who would surely emerge? If Paul did win the general, who knows how he would respond in the next Congress. Maybe he would refuse to caucus with the GOP altogether. And, should Paul not survive, it would take a great deal of resources to take him down, leaving the GOP nominee low on funds, and a Republican electorate badly divided by the contested primary.

What is the lesson in this? It is, as I suggested last week, that the party does not have much control over its members. Ultimately, our system is not at all efficient for the development and maintenance of a strong party brand. If a party candidate decides to run away from the party, and therefore diminish the brand, during the campaign - there is little the rest of the party can do. If a party official decides to vote against the party brand in the legislature - there is little the rest of the party can do. Importantly, it does not take a lot of "cheaters" to stultify the party agenda altogether. At its largest, the GOP majority was never more than twenty seats over a majority. So, less than ten percent of the party caucus could derail it. The Democratic majorities between the 1950s and the 1990s were much larger - but they were so full of southern, conservative Democrats that in many sessions the alliance of the southern conservatives and the Republicans had effective control over the chamber.

The civic consequence of this is irresponsibility. If the party cannot maintain a strong party brand - it lacks the ability to make coherent promises to the electorate during the campaign, or it lacks the ability to deliver on the promises that it makes, or some combination of both. This is the state of today's American political party - it is not responsible to the electorate. It has a hard time making promises during the electoral campaign because many Republicans run as something other than a Republican (ditto the Democrats). It has an even harder time delivering on those promises it manages to make because office holders can vote as they like in the legislature. The reason for both is that the parties lack enforcement mechanisms to "punish" their "cheaters." An office seeker or office holder can "cheat" on the party brand as much as he likes - and there is little that the rest of the party can do about it. The primary is not a viable enforcement mechanism. It virtually guarantees that incumbents will get an opportunity to face the general electorate, regardless of how loyal they have been to the party whose label they carry.

Ron Paul is a great example of this problem. The Republican Party has so little control over its members that the 1992 1988 Libertarian Party candidate for president can run and win as a Republican just four years later - and persist as a Republican as long as he chooses.

I'll continue this post tomorrow - and offer some tentative suggestions about what could be done to enhance party responsibility.

-Jay Cost