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By Jay Cost

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What the Voters Told Us Last Night

The following points are what we know for certain:

1. The voters of Virginia declared a preference for Bob McDonnell over Creigh Deeds.

2. The voters of New Jersey declared a preference for Chris Christie over Jon Corzine.

3. The voters of New York's Twenty-Third Congressional District declared a preference for Bill Owens over Doug Hoffman.

And that's it. Anything else is reading between the lines, and subject to the haziness that necessarily goes along with such an endeavor.

As the great political scientist, E.E. Schattschneider, once famously said (and I'm paraphrasing here): the voters are a sovereign with a vocabulary of just two words, yes and no; moreover, they can only speak when spoken to. Reflecting on this insight over the years, I have found it to be one of the most profound lessons for understanding American elections.

The nature of our electoral system is such that voters are given a very limited role in the process of governance. With the exception of ballot initiatives, they do not get to sound off on specific issues. And, when it comes to elections for office, they only get to register their preferences for a candidate. They do not get to indicate what they liked about their candidate, what issues motivated them, what problems are worrying them, and so on. The exit polls provide us with some insight on their motivations, but they remain fundamentally obscured.

If the voice of the people is limited, our interpretation of what they have said must rest heavily on our filling in the many gaps. That can be a tricky endeavor - for we're always inclined to fill in those gaps with our own voice, interpreting electoral returns in a way consistent with our own ideological dispositions. That can sometimes cause trouble.

A great case in point comes from Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Like most of America's successful presidents - Roosevelt had keen democratic instincts. He knew how to build a winning political coalition, and more importantly he knew how to hold it together. He won a big victory in the 1932 election, which he took as a mandate to initiate the New Deal. The voters agreed. They gave him even more congressional Democrats in the 1934 midterm, which he took as a mandate to expand the New Deal to include items like Social Security. Again, the voters agreed. When he stood for reelection in 1936, he won a resounding victory.

This is the point at which the story of the Squire of Hyde Park takes a turn. Historians shift from praising him to criticizing him. He took his resounding victory in '36 as a mandate to do several things, including cutting spending, purging New Deal opponents from the Democratic Party, and packing the Supreme Court. But, as it turned out, that is not what the public wanted - and they turned on Roosevelt in the 1938 midterms, sending nearly 100 Republicans to the House of Representatives and leaving his majority there entirely dependent upon Southern Democrats.

Viewed in hindsight, it's easy to be critical of Roosevelt, as many historians are. But when we examine matters from his perspective, it gets more difficult to blame old FDR. After all, he took his previous victories - in '32 and '34 - as mandates to promote big changes in the structure of the government. And he was right! So, what is so ridiculous about the proposition that '36 gave him leave to alter the Supreme Court? More generally, why were '32 and '34 mandates for what FDR wanted, but '36 was not? Judged solely by the votes themselves, we'd have to conclude that '36 was his largest victory to date, and thus perhaps his broadest mandate yet. But, as it turned out, that's not what it was at all.

This points to the difficulty in scrutinizing electoral returns for deeper meaning. I'm not saying it is impossible. It is possible. I do it myself from time to time. But it's a very difficult task because - as I noted above - the voice of the electorate is so very constrained. You have to fill in the blank notes for yourself - and if a maestro like Roosevelt could have so much trouble with that...what hope do the rest of us have?

Personally, I'm a big believer in a humble, narrow interpretation of election returns. On a purely political level, I think a politician is better served by under-interpreting his mandate than by over-interpreting it. It's true sometimes they mean big things - 1860 and 1896 come instantly to mind. But other times they don't mean much of anything. In the earlier part of this year, I argued strenuously that many Democrats were wildly over-interpreting Barack Obama's election in 2008. I disagreed when they pronounced it to be the dramatic inauguration of the new, permanent Democratic majority. My attitude then, as now, is that this is inconsistent with a fair and broad read of electoral history, the party system, and the general mood of the public. So, my narrow interpretation of last night is that the results we saw are in tension with that permanent majority hypothesis - and that they are more consistent with the alternative theory of continuing, robust competition between the two parties.

Was last night a "message" to Barack Obama? Maybe yes. Maybe no. I have my suspicions, but ultimately I'm not sure because he was not on the ballot anywhere. I think last night can be understood as a cautionary tale for the President - and here I would point to the case of New Jersey. Times are tough in the United States of America. And Corzine's defeat should remind us that when politicians get the blame for tough times - no amount of campaigning, spending, union organizing, or anything of the sort can spare them from the wrath of the voters, even in a state that is highly partial to their side of the aisle. Jon Corzine got the blame for the tough times in New Jersey, and that meant an end to his political career. If Barack Obama ends up getting blamed for these tough times - no number of rallies, campaign dollars, magnificent speeches in filled-to-capacity stadiums, or optimistic slogans will keep him in the White House.

A large portion of the country is now prepared to assign blame to him, in some form or another. The RealClearPolitics average shows a large minority - 44% - registering disapproval of the President's handling of the job. That is not just the conservative base of the GOP. It is larger than that, and that number could grow over the next year. The lesson from last night, I think, is that Jon Corzine won roughly the share of voters who approve of the job he was doing - and his opponents won those who disapproved. The same fate awaits Barack Obama. He'll be judged on how well he governs - and if the country deems him to have done an insufficient job, all the politicking between now and the end of time will not do a thing for him.

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-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

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

The Fight Over the Economy Is Just Beginning

In my recent discussion with Ruy Teixeira, I argued that true ideologues constitute a relatively small percentage of the public. But that is not to say that the broad middle of the nation does not have a core set of values that guides its political decisions. Among other things, it believes firmly in the idea of economic growth, and it isn't hesitant to punish politicians for weak economies.

The relationship between the electorate and the politicians is akin to Darth Vader and his lieutenants in The Empire Strikes Back. When the underlings failed Vader, he impatiently struck them down without a second thought, moving on to the next in command. Similarly, when politicians fail to deliver growth, the judgment of the electorate is just as swift and almost as brutal.

A Gallup poll conducted in 1999 found that 71% of the country approved of George H.W. Bush's job as president. Yet Mr. Bush had the misfortune of presiding over a downswing in the business cycle. Though the economy had been growing for six straight quarters by Election Day, unemployment was above 7%. He won just 37% of the vote. That 1990/91 recession also hurt his successor. In the early Clinton years, the economy grew and unemployment fell, but growth in real per capita income was slow to rebound. By the midterm, just 43% of voters approved of Clinton's handling of the economy, and the Democrats lost 52 House seats.

How's that for brutality? One (relatively mild) recession, and the public delivers harsh punishments to both parties years after growth returned. "Apology accepted, Captain Needa."

There are three lessons for today's politics. First, the country is impatient about growth. Recessions are virtually immoral in this country - and if growth is slow to return, or if its effects are slow to be felt by the average voter, the public will not take it lightly. The top line GDP number is not enough. If other indicators - like unemployment and real income, metrics that speak to how people are experiencing the economy - are still weak, the public's response can be just as wrathful.

Second, the public's diagnosis of the economic problem need not be enlightened. Imagine you lost your keys on a dark street. You'll look for them under the nearest streetlight - not because that's where they are, but because that's where you can see. That's how the electorate makes judgments about complicated subjects like the economy. It focuses on what it understands, whether or not that gets to the real issues. Recall the political damage George H.W. Bush suffered because he hadn't seen a price scanner before. Somehow, this meant he was out of touch, and thus not suited to bring the economy to recovery.

Third, Walter Shaprio recently suggested that Republicans will not gain from any populist backlash. I wouldn't be so sure. Out parties can make substantial, recession-related midterm gains despite having been led by unpopular presidents. Perhaps the best example is 1938. Amidst the "Roosevelt Recession," the country turned to the party of the reviled Herbert Hoover, who still had a negative rating in 1944. FDR's majority in the subsequent Congress depended entirely upon the old Confederacy - meaning that the GOP was the country's first choice outside the one-party South.

This links into the second point. The public lacks economic expertise, yet it must still assign blame for the struggling economy. It is unsurprising that - regardless of whether he deserves it - the President is often the recipient. After all, he is the most visible politician in the country. Additionally, Presidents are quick to accept credit for a flourishing economy, so inevitably they take the blame for when it languishes. When you blame the President and want a change, the opposition party is the only viable option.

While the current focus on Timothy Geithner, the Treasury, and the financial markets is understandable - this will probably not be the script of the broader political battle over the next 20 months. Assuming that the financial system is brought under control, the political debate will focus relentlessly on recession and recovery. Though the Administration, the CBO and the Blue Chip forecasters project modest growth in 2010 (ranging from 1.9% to 3.0%), all of them expect high unemployment (7.9% to 9.1%) and an economy performing below peak capacity. If these predictions are true - the corresponding public dissatisfaction will define the campaign of 2010, and the legislative battles that precede it.

Both sides will struggle to pin blame for the weak economy on the other. Republicans will indict President Obama, arguing that his policies failed to improve things. President Obama will remind voters of the previous administration, arguing that congressional Republicans advocate the same policies that brought about the recession. The public lacks the technical expertise to arbitrate based on the merits - so the outcome will depend in part on how bad the economy actually is (the worse it is, the worse for President Obama), and which side shows the greatest political acumen.

If you find this to be a dispiriting commentary on democratic accountability, think of it this way. Electoral justice might be rough, but it's also consistent: bad economies mean electoral defeat for somebody. Thus, those who are still in office when the dust settles learn a valuable lesson: grow the economy, or next time it could be you. In the long run, the public gets what it wants - a government dedicated first and foremost to growth.

-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

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

Karl Rove and the Partisan Worldview

Last week I wrote an essay analyzing the legacy of Karl Rove. My argument was that one of Rove's biggest problems - and indeed a major failure of this White House - was the failure to do all that could be down to control his and his boss' image.

I received more than a few emails in response to the essay. Many of them echoed the thoughts of this emailer:

I'm in direct disagreement with your attempt to present Karl Rove as a normal guy. Rove has a serious lack of ethics. He doesn't have sense of right or wrong as much as some ideas about the limitations of his power. With Rove the end has always justified the means. Ethically he is a mirror image of Richard Nixon. God help us if he is the common denominator of our society. Do you really believe that we have sunk so low? The best adjectives to describe Rove might be capable, vindictive and mean-spirited. He has screamed at people that he would crush them if they failed to do his bidding, he has boasted of spying on other campaigns, and he has run dirty campaigns such as the one which discredited John McCain. And apparently he has been undone by the nature of his character or he wouldn't be leaving in such a quick manner with little or no explanation.
I quote this at length not for its analytical insight. It is pretty much standard anti-Bush boilerplate. Rather, I quote it as a way to contrast this line of thinking with my own methodology here on the blog.

On this blog, I endeavor to adhere to what I call a "good faith assumption." What I mean by that is the following. It is, I think, impossible to draw inferences about a human being's character based upon his public persona, i.e. the set of data points that come to us through the media. We just cannot do it. We only get a tiny glimpse of a human being via the news. And, what is more, there are good reasons to believe that the person we see on TV or read about in the newspapers is quite different from the person who exists when cameras or tape recorders are not in front of him. And so, we cannot draw conclusions about a person's soul from the data that we glean from press reports.

So, where does that leave us? Well, I think it leaves us with the good faith assumption. I'll describe it this way. Most people with whom I am well acquainted are people who act in good faith most of the time. This is true even of the people that I do not like. Those people may have acted wickedly in an instance that has aroused my anger. They may even have some real moral flaws - but that does not mean that they do not generally try to do right by other people. It's the same for all of us. All of us are indeed capable of genuinely evil deeds from time to time. But, most of the time we act in good faith in our dealings with other people. Because I know this about people whom I know personally, it stands to reason that the same is true of people I do not know personally - in this case, political actors. Political actors might be less likely to act in good faith than, say, nurses. I am not sure - though I do know that the public has an unnecessarily skeptical view of politicians and their attendants. However, even if we were to agree that politicians are less likely to act in good faith than the average non-politician, we would still have to admit that most of the time they - just like everybody else - are acting in good faith.

Combining these two facts - limited data plus a priori knowledge of good faith - gives rise to the good faith assumption. Not only do I have good reasons to believe that politicos, just like almost everybody I know, are acting in good faith most of the time, I also lack a reliable dataset that speaks to their intentions. Thus, I should assume that, in whatever actions I observe (via the media) them do, they have acted in good faith. Surely, sometimes they do not. But, because my knowledge of them is strictly mediated, I have no way to differentiate good faith actions from bad faith actions. And I know a priori that most of their actions are in good faith. Thus, I should assume that all observed actions are in good faith unless I have compelling evidence to the contrary.

This is why the argument I quoted above does not do it for me. There is nothing more than whispers and innuendo masquerading as evidence in the emailer's excerpt. This is not enough. The good faith assumption means that people I do not know get the benefit of my doubt. They get this because I know, a priori, that most people are deserving of this doubt. And so, if my goal is to analyze political actors as accurately as I am able, I should assume that people I do not know are similarly deserving unless there is clear and compelling evidence otherwise. A few pseudo-documentaries occasionally run on the Sundace Channel are insufficient evidence in the face of this assumption.

Don't get me wrong, mind you. I am not being pollyannaish. The good faith assumption does not mean that I go into a situation assuming that all and sundry are angels. Not at all! For my analysis of Karl Rove, the good faith assumption means the following. I assume that Karl Rove is a political operative - nothing more and nothing less. Politics is a messy business - one that Americans inherently dislike. Rove is a partisan political operative who was engaging in the timeless tradition of American politicking. If he was a Democrat, Republicans would be screaming bloody murder about him just as Democrats are now. The reason, ultimately, is that Democrats think that only Republicans politick and Republicans think that only Democrats politick. Both sides are half right. Just like many professional Democrats, Karl Rove has been politicking lo these many years - not, I assume, undermining the very institutions of our republican democracy, etc. This is what one side always says when it observes the other side politicking.

I think that this, ultimately, points to why one needs to dislodge oneself of the psychological hold of political partisanship if one wishes to understand how our system actually works. This is not to say that one needs to stop voting, or that one needs to start splitting one's ticket. Both parties offer us reasonably clear and divergent policy alternatives. If one or the other suits you better, go with it. I do. This is also not to say that there is no such thing as right and wrong in politics. Dislodging oneself of the partisan worldview does not necessitate political nihilism.

Rather, it implies the following. Both political parties offer us a ready-made worldview, a lens through which we can look at our political environment and make sense of it. I take these worldviews to be the creations of electorally ambitious political actors whose goals are to acquire half plus one of the votes in the next election. These partisan worldviews are a means to these ends. Thus, they are explicitly crafted to induce us to political action. One way that we can be induced to political action (especially in a system, such as ours, that is usually "rigged" to prevent any single election from producing significant policy results) is if we believe that our political universe contains heroes and, of course, villains. The demonization of Karl Rove (and, for that matter, Hillary Clinton) is therefore part and parcel of a partisan worldview. Like I said, its purpose is to induce a response from us. It makes us mad. It gives us a sense of righteousness. And so on. That makes us more reliable party voters, or more generous party donors.

The problem with these worldviews is that they are morally and philosophically simplistic. Here, I am not talking about liberalism and conservatism - the two great American political philosophies. Rather, I am talking about "Republicanism" and "Democratism." These are philosophies as well. Both boil down to the idea that, in the great march of American history, our side is in the right and their side is in the wrong. Our side grasps the Truth - and the other side is filled with the ignorant who do not understand It, or the evil who deny It. Like I said, morally and philosophically simplistic. Accepting a partisan woldview gives us a ready-made answer to any and all political questions we might think to ask ourselves. However, it does not mean that those answers have much grounding in the complicated reality that is American political life.

If you're a partisan Democrat (i.e. one who embraces what I call "Democratism") - ask yourself if you know anybody in your personal life who is as evil as you think Karl Rove is. Or, ask yourself whether - when you got to know somebody you thought was that evil - you found out that he wasn't that bad after all. Maybe these are signs that people aren't really that evil, and that you have been offered and have accepted a worldview that really does not square with the world as you know it outside the time you spend consuming political information. Republicans can do the same, as I said, with Hillary Clinton. Really, do they make people that evil?

I would suggest that, when we start to embrace what I have been calling the good faith assumption, we start to see politics differently. Rather than an epic struggle of good versus evil (with our side, of course, being the good guys), it starts to look like a conflict between competing interests that is managed by a federated system that is animated by duly constituted elections that are fought over by political actors who do what political actors do: politick.

In other words, the good faith assumption is a step towards appreciating more fully exactly what Mr. Madison was on about when he wrote the following:

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts...The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.
What we see as the great moral march of just crusaders led by our fearless party leaders against the evil and/or ignorant opposition, Mr. Madison seems to think of as a faction that, if left unchecked, would lead to the demise of true republican government. We should think about that when we get so frothy-mouthed by our partisan worldviews. Mr. Madison imagined us getting frothy-mouthed, and resolved himself to divide political power six ways from Sunday to stop us from ruining our fragile republican experiment amidst our frothy furor. What does that tell us?

The psychological embrace of a partisan worldview is easy and satisfying. Both partisan narratives are easy to understand. Each helps us make judgments about a whole host of things for which we lack direct referents. Each is psychologically satisfying. Few things in life are more pleasurable than righteous anger. However, neither is all that valid on an empirical level. Embracing one might enable us to identify one actor as good and another as evil. It might allow us to feel good about ourselves. But it will not move us any closer to the reality of our politics. In fact, it will move us further from it.

-Jay Cost

Over-Interpreting Polls

I receive emails every so often from readers who ask me which polls I think are suspicious. Readers like these are near and dear to my heart, for theirs is a way of looking at politics that is similar to mine. Inherent to the question is the recognition that - with so much polling data out there, some of it is probably not good. We cannot just blithely use as evidence every bit of data we can get our hands on. Not all data is evidence.

My answer to the readers' question is usually, "few of them, and too many of them." My intuition is that few if any of the major polls make use of invalid methodology. Certainly, some skew in one direction, and some skew in the other direction. This problem can be ameliorated by averaging them, which is precisely what we do here at RealClearPolitics. At the same time, too many polls are over-interpreted by either the pollster who has created the poll, or the analyst who is using the data to make an argument.

What do I mean by "over-interpret?" This is what happens when you fall prey to the fallacy that all respondents in a poll know as much about politics as you do. If you are reading this essay, you are likely what I call an "informational elite," which means that there are major differences between you and the average poll respondent. It is not simply the case that he knows fewer facts about politics than you do, though this is most likely true; I'd wager that you could name at least half of the Supreme Court, while the average respondent will be lucky to get two. It is also that he does not think about politics in the same way that you do. He knows so much less than you that he must organize his political information in a way that, to you, would seem strange and inefficient.

For instance, we like to think of ourselves as an ideologically polarized nation. 33% of America is liberal, 33% conservative, 34% moderate. Not exactly! I would agree that these might be the percentages of people who identify themselves by way of these terms (when they are asked to). However, the percentage of people who make good and full use of the political ideologies we call "conservative" and "liberal" is much, much lower. I am not up-to-date on the latest research, but I have never seen a figure higher than 30%. That is, 30% of the whole public makes at least effective use of these ideologies to organize their political information (so, 30% ideological vs. 70% non-ideological).

This is what political ideologies do. They do many things, of course, but one thing they do is organize the information that we receive. Conservatives who are not experts on education policy "know" not to listen to Ted Kennedy when he argues for whatever education policy he favors. How do they, as non-experts, know that? Their ideology sets up for them a framework for looking at the political environment, and helps them make their way through uncertain situations. So, even if they are not experts in education policy, they know (a) their general philosophical position on the role of the government in something like education, (b) Ted Kennedy's philosophical position, (c) that Ted Kennedy's and their positions diverge. Thus, they can "filter" whatever Ted Kennedy is saying. Liberals can do the same with somebody like George W. Bush. Ideologies are not just a set of normative beliefs, they are also a way to structure and organize the political world.

The implication here is that because a large portion of the public is "innocent" of ideology, it therefore organizes the political world in a different manner. There are a multitude of organizational schema that you, as an informational elite, use that an average poll respondent - who has much less information than you do - cannot make use of. Ideology is one example of such a schema, but it is not the only one.

Thus, when you, as an informational elite, over-interpret a poll, you are falsely applying your organizational schema to the respondent. You interpret a question as you interpret it, and then you assume that every other person who was asked the question interprets it similarly. The consequence of over-interpreting a poll is that you improperly infer the implications of the poll's answer.

One such instance is Hillary Clinton's high negative ratings. This is once again in the news, thanks to Mason-Dixon. It recently found that 52% of respondents would not vote for Clinton. This is an instance where informational elites often fall prey to over-reading polling results.

What does this number mean for Clinton? I would agree that it means something. Obviously, she would be better off if her negatives were not as high. However, I think it is far too easy to over-read these results, i.e. to infer that this implies that she is not electable. If you inferred this from that poll, you were probably over-reading it. I counted at least four different ways to over-read the poll.

First, an informational elite knows all about the other candidates in the race. So, when asked if he would not vote for somebody, he can run a quick mental comparison between that candidate and the rest of the candidates in the race - and offer what approaches a definitive answer. The average respondent, on the other hand, is not capable of that kind of estimation. He generally lacks information about the other candidates in the race. A general election in this country is a choice between two individuals. An average respondent might be willing to say that he is not going to support Clinton, but he might not know enough about the other candidates right now to be able to warrant that his opinion will not change when given a choice between her and somebody else. Maybe he would in fact vote for Clinton if a candidate that he really does not like gets the Republican nomination.

Second, the answer given by an informational elite is probably not conditions-based. In other words, an informational elite usually has a very well-defined political ideology, and therefore has a party preference regardless of what is going on in the country. If the country is at war, a liberal wants a Democrat. If it is at peace, he wants a Democrat. If the economy is strong, Democrat. Weak, Democrat. And so on. The average respondent (at least the one who swings presidential elections) tends to lack this kind of ideological grounding, and so he might change his mind depending upon the conditions in the nation. There might be situations in which a voter who is innocent of ideology could feel that Clinton is the best choice, even if today he claims that he would never think that.

Third, an informational elite might understand the question differently than an average respondent. An informational elite hears that question, and he probably envisions a mental picture akin to the voting booth - in which he is looking at Clinton's name against any other Republican name, and asks what he would do. The average respondent might not see it in those terms. What terms might he see it in? I don't know - but consider the sharp definitions to the mental image that this question creates in the mind of the informational elite. In the mind of the average voter, the question might not evoke such clear boundaries to the mental picture, and thus the answer might not be as precise.

Fourth, an informational elite probably has a fully formed opinion about Hillary Clinton, whereas the average respondent probably does not. This means that it does not matter how much Clinton spends, she is not going to change the mind of an informational elite who does not like her. What about the average voter? Is he susceptible to a change of heart on Clinton? I would wager that the answer is yes - at least for enough of them. Granted, an average respondent knows a lot more about Clinton than he does any other candidate - so obviously, some elements of his opinion are fixed. However, his opinion of her is probably susceptible to some pro-Clinton alterations. After all, he still does not know all that much about her. He might be persuadable - especially by the hundred million or so Clinton would spend on the election. And so, his opinion now - before that hundred mil is deployed - is not nearly as fixed as the informational elite's opinion.

To fail to take these considerations to heart is to fall prey to a false analogy between you and the average respondent. This makes it much more likely that you will over-read the poll - that you will take the answer of the average respondent to be as fully-formed and clearly-defined as your own answer. Accordingly, you will be inclined to overrate the danger that these numbers pose to Clinton.

Obviously, this poll is not great news for her. It means she has some hurdles to jump. She has to change people's minds - and, as the Republican Party will be working very hard to keep minds as they currently are, she might not be successful. However, it is easy to read too much into this, to infer that this polling data is anywhere near decisive evidence against the viability of her candidacy.

-Jay Cost

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

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

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

Continue reading "An Incipient Realignment? A Response to Judis and Teixeira, Part 2" »

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

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

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

I shall spread my response over today and tomorrow.

Continue reading "An Incipient Realignment? A Response to Judis and Teixeira, Part 1" »