John McCain and the essential bipartisan impulse

I eagerly anticipated the evening of Tuesday, November 4, 1986 for months. As a 20-year-old political science major and political junkie, Election Day was (and remains) one of my favorite days of the year. Plus, as a lifelong Democrat, I was particularly excited by the prospect the Democrats could win the net four seats necessary to regain control of the United States Senate (“Senate”) for the first time since 1980.

In my memory, I watched a small black-and-white television set in my small room high in the “tower” of Ezra Stiles (my residential college at Yale)—but it is far more likely I listened to the returns on the radio.

Ezra Stiles tower October 1988

It did not take too late into the night to learn the Democrats would actually flip a net of eight seats—giving them a 55-45 advantage. I vividly recall jubilantly shouting “eight seats!” into the telephone at my then-girlfriend, a fellow Democrat.

Somewhat lost in my celebration, however, was that Arizona had elected John McCain, a 50-year old Republican member of the United States House of Representatives (“House”), to replace retiring Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican nominee for president.

Senator McCain would exist on the periphery of my political consciousness for much of the next 10 years—surfacing mostly as a tangential player in the Keating Five scandal and as a vocal critic of President Bill Clinton’s Balkans policy.

Then, in the spring of 1996, “Focus writer” Scot Lehigh wrote a long article in the Boston Globe[1] speculating that the Republican Party, sensing doom for its near-certain presidential nominee, Senator Robert Dole of Kansas, would turn late in its August nominating convention to an entirely new ticket.

Here is the key passage:

Midnight [Wednesday, August 15, 1996]. There’s commotion on stage. The lights dim, and [Republican Party Chair Haley] Barbour walks to the lectern. ‘I’d like to introduce the ticket we hope will lead the GOP on to victory,’ he begins. ‘A former Navy pilot, a Vietnam War hero, a patriot, a stalwart in the Senate, I give you Arizona Sen. John McCain. And with him, Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.’ The two senators, still shell shocked by developments, mount the podium. The crowd, not quite believing what it has wrought, responds with some cheers, some hisses, uncertain applause.

For a moment, it appears the convention won’t be won over. Then Dole emerges from the shadows, strides toward McCain and raises the senator’s hand in the air. An explosion of applause wells from the crowd and washes over the stage in appreciation both for Dole’s grace and for the new start he has given his party. In short order, the Arizona delegation moves that McCain and Hutchison be nominated by acclamation – and the GOP has a new ticket.”

This was one of my first hints there was a broader appeal to Senator McCain, certainly in comparison to Dole, who would lose to Clinton 49.2% to 40.7%, winning only 159 Electoral College votes (EV) to Clinton’s 379. However, despite the gloomiest predictions, Republicans actually netted three Senate seats while only losing a net of four House seats. As I have written elsewhere, the Democrats were becoming the “White House” party while the Republicans were becoming the “legislative” party. As usual, federal election data come from Dave Leip’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections and here.

Three years later, Senator McCain announced his candidacy for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, which Texas Governor George W. Bush appeared to have nailed down. McCain vowed to make campaign finance reform—an effort he pursued with Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin—a centerpiece of his campaign. I remember watching the months leading up to the 2000 New Hampshire primary from neighboring Massachusetts as “maverick” John McCain seemed literally to embody the words on his campaign bus, engaging in freewheeling town hall meetings and gabbing with the press.

straight talk express 2000

I found myself riveted by this Republican Senator who bucked his party on campaign finance reform, called out the tobacco companies for lying about the health risks of their products, and seemed to eschew negative campaigning. As the first nomination votes approached in Iowa and New Hampshire, I was rooting strongly for McCain to face Democratic Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey in November. I thought the two men would engage in an honorable, issues-oriented discussion in the fall—sharp-edged at times to be sure—but civil nonetheless. (In the interest of full transparency, I still would have wanted Bradley to prevail).

With no disrespect intended toward Vice President Al Gore or then-Governor Bush, I genuinely believed (hoped?) a Bradley-McCain race would best reflect this statement on my home page:

“I am grateful to everyone who…comments in a respectful way: it really is possible to disagree without being disagreeable.”

However, despite McCain upsetting Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, 48.5% to 30.4% while Bradley only lost to Gore by 4.1 percentage points, Bush and Gore were the ultimate nominees. And we all know how that race ended.

Still, McCain’s bipartisan status only increased when Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, repeatedly asked McCain to consider being his running mate. And in 2008, when McCain finally achieved his goal of becoming the Republican presidential nominee, his first choice for running mate was Democratic-turned-Independent Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut—Gore’s running mate just eight years earlier. That he rather rashly chose Alaska Governor Sarah Palin instead is a serious blot on McCain’s legacy and arguably helped trigger the election of Republican Donald Trump as president in 2016.

By the same token, Senator McCain’s finest moment in the 2008 race, which he ultimately lost to Illinois Senator Barack Obama 52.9% to 45.6% (365-173 EV), may well have been this exchange with some ill-informed voters:

Flash forward to the summer of 2017, when the Senate was nearing a final vote to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”). In what was less a policy argument and more a “restoration of norms” argument, Senator McCain hinted at what would ultimately be a “no” vote. [For the record, McCain mischaracterizes how Obamacare was passed…but his larger point stands.]

In many ways, this was John McCain’s bipartisan curtain call.

**********

During my last session with my psychotherapist, amidst a discussion of these unresolved questions, I suddenly veered into my reaction to McCain’s death. Put simply, this staunch liberal Democrat was utterly heartbroken.

My therapist suggested I am far from alone.

Over the last few days, I watched a series of impassioned tributes to Senator McCain. Former Vice President Joe Biden remembered his close friend in the Senate, recalling how the two former colleagues were admonished in the mid-1990s by party leadership for sitting next to each other during floor debates (an early sign of the slow-motion death of civil political discourse). I teared up at Biden’s everyman eloquence, as I did watching former Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, as well as Meghan McCain, eulogize their former political rival and father, respectively.

I urge you to watch each of these speeches and consider not only the extraordinary bipartisan settings in which they were delivered but also that Senator McCain pointedly asked two men who defeated him for the presidency—one Democrat and one Republican—to eulogize him.

**********

It is a hopeful fact that my reaction to Trump’s victory was not to retreat further into my partisan Democratic camp, but rather to do what each of these four speakers above fervently recommended: be an American first and a partisan a distant second while viewing political opponents as fellow citizens who happen to hold different points of view.

And so I close with some of my own recent calls for the bipartisan impulse (if not necessarily results).

For example, in my first substantive post I presented my bipartisan “bona fides,” concluding:

“The point of this stroll through the first half of my life is that as a strong partisan Democrat, I could still find common ground with many Republicans. On a personal level, one of my closest friends in high school was a staunch Republican who loved Reagan as much as I loved Walter Mondale. Mondale was my first presidential vote, in 1984, and still one of my proudest.”

The following June, I reflected on two very different conversations:

“The Vale Rio Diner no longer sits at the intersection of Route 23 and Route 113N, while Zaftigs just celebrated its 40th anniversary.

“Two very different encounters in those two very different eateries leave me with this question: When do you stick to deeply-held principles, and when do you set them aside to advance the common good?

“The answer may have something to do with lowering your voice, listening to other points of view and questioning your own certainty.”

Over the next few months, as noted above, about the three Republican Senators who bravely voted against repealing Obamacare and about the profound lack of civility on sites like Twitter.

This past June, I was at it again.

First, I argued bipartisanship is an act of patriotism, declaring my intention to vote in November 2018 to reelect Republican Charlie Baker as governor of Massachusetts.

“Here is also why I will be voting for Baker in four+ months.

“If I am calling on select Republicans to defy their President and work in a bipartisan fashion with Democrats, it would be massively hypocritical for me not to support a more-than-reasonable Republican who has done exactly that. Every time I cheer a former Republican speaking out against the President on MSNBC, I need to be able to match that gesture with one of my own.

“Simply put, I cannot ask someone to do something—be actively bipartisan—without being willing to do the same thing myself.

“Moreover, the only way to break down the tribalist partisanship that causes us to see persons with the wrong ‘label’ as a mortal enemy is to elevate bipartisanship into an act of patriotism.

“The stakes of the Cold War were so monumental that partisanship was supposed to stop at the water’s edge: there was to be no squabbling over matters of life and death. While that was not always true, particularly as the Vietnam War divided the Democratic Party and Democrats took President Ronald Reagan to task for his aggressively anti-Soviet Union posturing, that credo still serves as an excellent model for reimagining bipartisanship as patriotism.

“Would I still vote for Baker if he were not heavily favored to win, meaning Nell’s and my votes will in no way be decisive? I do not know, to be honest. But were he not so effective AND anti-Trump, he would not be so popular, so the question kind of answers itself.

“It is exceptionally difficult for lifelong partisans like me—this will only be the second time I vote Republican—even to consider opposing point of view (though it can be done), let alone voting for a candidate of the opposite party. But I firmly believe these actions are the best—maybe the only—ways to begin to solve our current epistemological crisis.”

One week later, I renewed my call for a bipartisan “coalition of the center” to form in the Senate:

“I have previously called for cross-partisan dialogue—patriotic bipartisanship. After President Trump was elected, I also began proposing a “coalition of the center” to form in the Senate that would wield an effective veto over legislation, forcing broad compromises by both parties. Such a group could consist of “red-state” Democrats like Donnelly, Heitkamp, Doug Jones (AL—R+28.4), Manchin, Claire McCaskill (MO—R+15.9) and Jon Tester (MT—R+18.6); Independent Angus King (ME—D+5.9); and Republicans like Susan Collins (ME—D+5.9), Lisa Murkowski (AK—R+19.2) and, perhaps, Cory Gardner (CO—D+2.2).

“Were this bloc (or even the smaller bloc of Donnelly, Heitkamp, Jones, Manchin, Collins and Murkowski) to insist, unequivocally, that President Trump select…

“’…a consensus nominee to replace Kennedy. “[Senator Heitkamp] told the president that he has a chance to unite the country by nominating a true non-ideological jurist who could gain strong support from senators on both sides of the aisle, rather than create more divisions…’

“…they would elevate the traditional ‘advice and consent’ role of the Senate above partisan rancor and force both parties to compromise, in effect restoring the judicial nomination filibuster.

“Now, this would infuriate the conservatives who voted for Donald Trump (and President Trump himself) solely for the opportunity to remake SCOTUS in their image (though they still ‘won’ with Gorsuch). And it would disappoint the liberal activists who want every Senate Democrat to resist President Trump at every turn (though this is easily the least-worst nominee they will get in 2018). But those may be the necessary costs of restoring civil order to our public discourse.”

In retrospect, I should have included Senator John McCain in that group—though I could also argue that he was already a key voting bloc all by himself, a rare Senator whose support can make or break legislation by itself.

That one-man bloc is no longer with us, and it is clear why McCain’s death so broke my heart (despite rarely agreeing with him on policy and not voting for him in 2008):

He was the living embodiment of the bipartisan impulse I have strived to articulate for nearly two years, the simple notion that you treat all political opponents with respect and decency, while expecting the same in return (and, yes, there are limits to this impulse).

Without John McCain’s guidance, we each must work harder than ever to embody that impulse.

Rest in peace, Senator. You served your country honorably.

Until next time…

[1] Lehigh, Scot, “Unconventional thinking: Is it possible that Dole might not get the GOP nod?” Boston Globe (Boston, MA), May 19, 1996, pp. 65-67.

Bipartisanship as patriotism

I started quietly screaming here.

But my deep revulsion for what the United States government, my government, the government elegantly outlined in our founding documents, is doing along our southern border (not the northern border with majority-northern-European Canada, mind you) boiled over the other night in this (annotated) 1,000+-word reply to a similar cri de coeur on the Bone and Silver blog.

The US faces an epistemological crisis. Some 20-25% of the population–primarily rural white Protestant men with at most a high school diploma (culturally conservative, isolationist, economically populist)–has been conditioned by right-wing propaganda (Fox News, talk radio mostly) for 30+ years to believe that all of their problems are caused by a long list of “others”: blacks (dangerous criminals), Spanish-speaking immigrants (drug-lord rapists and murderers who want your jobs), Muslims (terrorists), LGBQT folks (out to destroy your families), the mass media (lying to you), liberals (wimpy snowflakes who hate you and your values and *your* country) and the globalist-coastal elites (sending *your* jobs and country overseas, or something).

[Eds. note: I have no idea how large this segment of the population is. Trump’s 2016 share of the voting-age population was 25.0%, according to data from here and here. While not all Trump voters fit this characterization, an identical 25% (on average) support Trump’s recent immigration actions. And about 24% of American adults solely get their news from Fox News. The overlap between these groups is probably quite large, though well below 100%. Still, even if the percentage is only half of my upper limit—12.5%–that is still 1 in 8 Americans over the age of 18.] 

The crisis is that these Americans literally live in a different reality, with different news sources and accepted truths. This self-contained echo chamber is the only way they can sustain their paranoid grievances. And what they most fear is not loss of economic status but loss of racial/cultural status. They see an encroaching diverse modernity in which they have little-to-no status, which existentially terrifies them.

And so they cultishly follow an autocrat who echoes and validates their worst fears:  Mexicans and Muslims and transgendered folks and black athletes and liberals and Democrats and the media and China and our allies (Canada? Really?) are out to get *them*.

They are so deep in this twisted (yet infinitely self-justified) worldview that they no longer see these “others” as human beings, at some primitive level. *They* are animals who will “infest” (in 45’s words) THEIR country and destroy THEIR way of life. 

Yeah, you say, but they are outnumbered at least 3-1, so why is this happening?

This 20-25% of the population has an outsized influence on the Republican Party (which has cynically nurtured their paranoia for political gain since Nixon was first elected president in 1968), particularly which Republicans get nominated—and especially since the election of an urbane black man as president in 2008. That was a bridge too far for them, and for the Republican Party, who (to prevent losing nominations to further-right-wing candidates) vowed absolute opposition to him. They are also geographically dispersed across enough districts to elect enough like-minded Republicans to effectively control a majority of state houses and the United States House of Representatives. And, in a 17-person field, they coalesced around Trump early enough to allow him to win the nomination, sweeping aside an establishment that could not (or would not) coalesce around a more “mainstream” alternative (not that their choices were all that impressive). Once the Democrats nominated the equally-flawed Hillary Clinton, after Democrats had controlled the White House for 8 years…well, he still only won by 77,000 votes in three states (while losing the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points—the Electoral College’s Republican advantage at work again).

The thing is, 45’s policy advisors–including the all-but-Nazi Stephen Miller–truly think that they beat Clinton not because she was a bad candidate at the wrong time, but because they mistakenly believe that most of the country is as right-wing nationalist/racist as they are. Here, they are flat wrong, but for arcane structural reasons, it may still take a tidal wave of Democratic votes to wrest back the House this November (the Senate will be tougher, but I am optimistic). 

And as with any tribalist cult, they make up in passion and cunning what they lack in numbers, including voting at higher rates, while using every trick to maximize their electoral advantage (less through gerrymandering than through suppression). They do this because they legitimately see the “not-them” as Manichean enemies who must be stopped at all costs. For them, ends justify cruel, immoral and, yes, anti-democratic means: when push comes to shove, safety/security generally trumps (pun intended) liberal democracy. 

The thing is, though, even if Democrats win back the House (likely) and the Senate (30% chance?) and a bunch of state houses…actually, many good things will happen (if only by preventing more bad things from happening). But the crisis will still exist. This squeaky-wheel minority will, if anything, feel more aggrieved and more isolated and more desperate to fight inexorable change. And Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones and the National Enquirer and Breitbart will continue to echo and amplify their increasingly-distorted reality, not only because it serves their own interests (and bottom-lines) to do so–they also genuinely fear the consequences of suddenly backing off decades of crazy-stroking. 

So how do we fix this? How do we get a sprawling, impossibly-diverse nation of nearly 400 million people back on the same “we are all in this together” page (begging the question whether, besides WWII, we ever were)? How do we get these reality-denying folks to accept the reality of climate change, the trade-offs between secure borders and nurturing compassion, the tragic consequences of an overly-gun-permissive society (the unique Constitutional protection afforded guns has morphed into Constitutional protection of THEIR way of life—restricting the former is a direct assault on the latter), the value of expertise, the benefits of a multi-cultural/multi-ethnic society (a wider talent pool, if nothing else), and so forth?

I have absolutely no idea.

But as I see one California couple raise nearly $15 million almost overnight on Facebook to provide legal services for these newly-detained immigrants and their lost children, as I see more and more Republicans abandoning/staring down their party (thank you, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker), as I see the mainstream media absolutely refusing to back down from their Constitutionally-protected duty to investigate and report and expose, as I see Robert Mueller—a lifelong Republicandiligently pursuing his own investigations, as I watch previously apathetic citizens taking to the streets in protest…I have hope that the “sensible” (if not always ideologically-unified) 75+% will regain the “values” upper-hand and restore everything I have always loved about my country. 

The aggrieved minority may never accept what we understand as reality, because it is too existentially painful. But they are still my fellow Americans, and I must share our nation with them, just as they have to share it with folks like me. All I can do is continue to call out their nonsense in the clearest possible terms in the perhaps-naive hope that enough of them will eventually snap out of it.

Otherwise…we may simply have to wait as their numbers shrink even further, as the demographers insist will happen. 

Do not give up on this country…we ARE better than this.

Upon further reflection, though, I do have one practical suggestion, however, though it may not appeal to everyone: active bipartisanship.

It is telling in this regard that my second-ever post presented my bipartisan bona fides. My goal was to insulate myself against criticism (yet to materialize) that my liberal Democratic views biased my political and cultural data analyses. My meticulous sourcing also serves that purpose—allowing critical readers to fact-check my assertions and draw their own conclusion. In this, my academic roots clearly show: transparency in methods, data and sources.

But I think that post also stemmed from my hope that sufficient elected Republicans would stand up to the newly-elected President, thwarting his most anti-democratic impulses.

Shockingly few Republican elected officials, however, have done so. Yes, Republican Senators Susan Collins (Maine), John McCain (Arizona) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) voted NOT to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And Republican Senators Bob Corker (Tennessee) and Jeff Flake (Arizona), both of whom chose not to seek reelection in 2018, have at time publicly expressed deep reservations about President Trump.

But those moments have been few and far between. The reality is that Republicans, for all their protestations, have mostly voted for whatever President Trump has wanted. According to the FiveThirtyEight vote tracker, the median Republican United States Senator (51 currently serving) has voted with the President’s position a median 93.2% of the time, with 41 (80.4%) voting with his position at least 90% of the time; the “least” loyal Republican Senators were Rand Paul (Kentucky) and Collins, who still supported the President on at least 75% of votes. The obeisance was slightly higher for Republican members of the United States House of Representatives (US House; 235 currently serving who have cast at least one vote[1]): median support was 96.2%, with 193 (82.1%) voting with the President at least 90% of the time; the two least-loyal Republican House members have only voted with the President half of the time—Walter Jones (NC-3; 52.2%) and Justin Amash (MI-3; 53.0%). Curiously, the most vulnerable Republican House members, the 22 who represent congressional districts Clinton won in 2016, backed the President a median 97.0% of the time.

Instead, the few “profiles in courage” have come from state houses. Thirty-three states currently have Republican governors, with 16 having Democratic governors; Alaska Governor Bill Walker is an Independent.

Ohio Governor John Kasich famously challenged Trump from the (relative) left during the 2016 Republican presidential primaries and caucuses; he remains a vocal thorn in the President’s side. Three other Republican governors: Baker, Larry Hogan (Maryland), Phil Scott (Vermont)—remain enormously popular (68% approve/18% disapprove, on average) in states that are 24.1 percentage points more Democratic than the nation as a whole (using this calculation). Besides being genuinely likable, they remain popular by working—often in direct opposition to “their” President—closely with their states’ majority Democratic legislatures, carving out socially moderate-to-liberal and fiscally conservative positions.

Although I have lived in Massachusetts for most of the last 30 years, I never really followed Baker’s ascent, though I knew he was the chief Republican “up-and-comer” after his successful stint directing Harvard Pilgrim Health Care starting in 1999. In 2010, he was the Republican nominee against incumbent Democratic Governor Deval Patrick; Baker lost 48.4 to 42.0%.

charlie baker

A few months later, I was sitting in a Boston restaurant having lunch with my then-supervisor, when she nudged my arm. “Isn’t that himself?” she asked. I turned around to see Baker walk right near out table.That was when I realized how TALL he is (6’6”).

On August 25 of the previous year, Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy had died, after serving in the US Senate for almost 47 years. A special election to fill the seat through January 2013 was held on January 19, 2010. Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley and little-known Republican State Senator Scott Brown easily won their primaries, and the prevailing wisdom was that Coakley would easily prevail against Brown. Instead, Brown upset Coakley 51.9 to 47.1%. (I drove through central Massachusetts with both daughters the weekend before the election, seeing no Coakley signs but quite a few Brown signs; uh-oh, I thought).

Four years later, with Patrick term-limited, Coakley was now the Democratic nominee for governor, seemingly a stronger candidate after her upset defeat. Baker was again the Republican gubernatorial nominee. And this time he won, 48.4 to 46.5%.

I did not vote for Baker in 2014 (just as I did not vote for Republican gubernatorial nominee William Weld in 1990 when he was, in many ways, more liberal than Democratic nominee Jon Silber—I now regret that vote). However, watching the debates between Coakley and Baker, I was struck by how much I LIKED Baker. Where Coakley was robotic and stiff, Baker was warm and engaging. His Harvard-educated brilliance shown through, but with an appealing everyman demeanor: he was clearly enjoying himself.

Because I think Coakley, with her flaws, would still have been a good governor, I do not regret my vote. But neither was I particularly upset that Baker won.

And since then, I have only grown to respect Baker more. He is more fiscally conservative than I would prefer, but his consistent willingness to call out Trump when necessary, well, trumps those positions.

I was wavering on voting for him this November (regardless of who the Democratic nominee is) until he forcefully “revoked his decision to send National Guard helicopters and personnel to the Southwestern border,” citing the inhumane treatment of children by the Trump Administration.

That did it: Nell and I will be voting to reelect Baker this fall, even as we joyfully vote for Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren and our member of Congress, Joseph P. Kennedy III, also a Democrat.

Here is also why I will be voting for Baker in four+ months.

If I am calling on select Republicans to defy their President and work in a bipartisan fashion with Democrats, it would be massively hypocritical for me not to support a more-than-reasonable Republican who has done exactly that. Every time I cheer a former Republican speaking out against the President on MSNBC, I need to be able to match that gesture with one of my own.

Simply put, I cannot ask someone to do something—be actively bipartisan—without being willing to do the same thing myself.

Moreover, the only way to break down the tribalist partisanship that causes us to see persons with the wrong “label” as a mortal enemy is to elevate bipartisanship into an act of patriotism.

The stakes of the Cold War were so monumental that partisanship was supposed to stop at the water’s edge: there was to be no squabbling over matters of life and death. While that was not always true, particularly as the Vietnam War divided the Democratic Party and Democrats took President Ronald Reagan to task for his aggressively anti-Soviet Union posturing, that credo still serves as an excellent model for reimagining bipartisanship as patriotism.

Would I still vote for Baker if he were not heavily favored to win, meaning Nell’s and my votes will in no way be decisive? I do not know, to be honest. But were he not so effective AND anti-Trump, he would not be so popular, so the question kind of answers itself.

It is exceptionally difficult for lifelong partisans like me—this will only be the second time I vote Republican—even to consider opposing point of view (though it can be done), let alone voting for a candidate of the opposite party. But I firmly believe these actions are the best—maybe the only—ways to begin to solve our current epistemological crisis.

Until next time…

[1] 240 overall

Why I chose…Dynamics of the Party System

In my two previous posts, I began to explain my choices for the Facebook book challenge I completed May 16 (seven covers over seven days, no explanations), addressing my interest in crime, both fictional and real.

I now turn away from crime (fictional and otherwise) and toward something far more sinister and horrifying.

Politics.

IMG_3760 (2).JPG

**********

I first encountered American politics in October 1972, having just turned six, as President Richard Nixon was cruising to reelection over my staunchly Democratic family’s choice, South Dakota Senator George McGovern. On a gray November morning four years later, I sat in the front seat of my mother’s car in the parking lot of my suburban Philadelphia elementary school, poring over the state-by-state returns from the previous day’s presidential election. It was my first election “win,” as Jimmy Carter, the Democratic former governor of Georgia, had barely edged Republican Gerald Ford; Ford would have prevailed had he won just 12,000 and 15,000 more votes in Ohio and Mississippi, respectively. Looking back, I think the nation would have won either way.

As the 1980 presidential election began (and I found myself drawn to California’s Democratic governor, Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, Jr., who had nearly wrested the nomination from Carter less than four years earlier), I was in 8th grade, being taught American history by the exceptional Tom Collins. Mr. Collins presented history (and politics) not only through important events, but also through art, literature and music; this is when my fascination with American history in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s began. We followed the unfolding election in class, learning about the ideological spectrum in the process. I particularly remember Mr. Collins standing at the blackboard, placing various current political figures on a left-right continuum, later proclaiming that he himself, as a history teacher, needed to sit right in the middle.

In March 1980, a woman named Barbara Bush, whose husband George I vaguely knew was running for the Republican presidential nomination, addressed the student body at Bala Cynwyd Middle School. (see Philadelphia Inquirer story below) I remember little of what she said (other than being impressed this engaging woman was speaking to us at all), though I understood she was trying to get us to convince our parents to vote for her husband. That appearance may have helped, because on April 22, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Herbert Walker Bush beat former California governor Ronald Reagan in the Pennsylvania Republican presidential primary, 50 to 43%. Despite that victory, Bush lost the nomination to Reagan, becoming the latter’s vice-presidential running mate.

The_Philadelphia_Inquirer_Sat__Apr_19__1980_

And yet I did not truly become a hardcore political junkie until late 1982/early 1983, when a slew of famous (seriously, McGovern again?) and not-so-famous (who the heck is Reubin Askew?) Democrats began declaring themselves candidate for their party’s 1984 presidential nomination. Hard to believe now, given his eventual 18-point victory over former Vice President Walter Mondale, but Reagan appeared quite vulnerable then.

Who knows why “Fritz” Mondale quickly became my first political hero[1]; until I cast votes for then-Senator Barack Obama in 2008, my November 1984 vote for Mondale (I was still too young to vote in Pennsylvania’s April Democratic primary) was my proudest vote. Yes, he was an experienced hand with broadly similar liberal views, but it was more than that. What friends who preferred Colorado Senator Gary Hart, who would emerge as Mondale’s strongest challenger for the nomination, saw as “boring,” I saw as a gentle and genuine humility.

My attachment to Mondale was such that more than 20 years later, when I just joined Facebook, a high school friend asked me if I was still into Mondale. Yes, I responded, not taking the gentle gibe too seriously.  While many of my fellow high school students were apolitical (and most of their parents were centrist Republicans in the mold of the state’s two Senators, John Heinz and Arlen Specter), one of my closest friends was an avid Reagan supporter. Our friendly political sparring is a model of respectful disagreement I still try to follow.

That summer, I watched the Democratic National Convention gavel-to-gavel, though I chose to avoid the Republican National Convention.

And that fall, I enrolled in Yale University, where I pursued my interest in American electoral geography. In so doing, I helped to set up an undergraduate course, taught my senior year by friend and mentor David Mayhew, called “American Political Geography.”

Assigned in this course was the book pictured above: the 1983 revised edition of James L. Sundquist’s Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States; the first edition was published in 1973.

At first, I did not understand what this book had to do with electoral geography, which to my mind mostly involved tabulations of state-and-local election returns and/or beautiful color maps. It meant obscure works like Section and Party: Political Geography of Presidential Elections, from Andrew Jackson to Ronald Reagan, written in 1981 by two geographers, J. Clark Archer and Peter J. Taylor, or Kevin Phillips’ groundbreaking 1969 work The Emerging Republican Majority.

Reading the book, however, as I recall doing in the sunny bedroom of the off-campus apartment I shared with two male classmates, drinking a half-milk, half-coffee concoction from a tall blue mug, I began to understand.

Stepping back a second, what I really liked about the book was how readable it was. This was not the stilted academic prose from which I would later rebel, a rebellion that still informs my “annotated meandering” writing style. Instead, it carried the reader along almost the way a novel would, leaving her/him wondering “what happened next?”

Consider this paragraph that opens Chapter Seven: The Realignment of the 1890s:

“The prairie fire that swept the frontier states in 1890 was bound to move eastward. As third-party politicians began their quadrennial efforts to organize for the presidential election two years away, they had a solid regional foundation to build on—by far the strongest political base any off-year election had constructed for them since the Civil War. The western victories energized and inspired reformers everywhere. The men and women who had been catapulted into national prominence by these victories found themselves in the vanguard of national third-party politics. And they assumed that role with missionary zeal.”[2]

Whether you love, hate, or are indifferent to politics, that is propulsive writing (“prairie fire that swept,” “energized and inspired,” “catapulted,” “missionary zeal”). Sure, Dynamics occasionally gets bogged down in details (an occupational hazard of non-fiction writing, I have found), but overall it is as close to a “page-turner” as an academic work of political science can get. Just as Mr. Collins did, Sundquist presents this sweeping review of American political history (focusing on the shifting coalitions support America’s ever-evolving political parties) on a “human” scale.

As for political geography, Sundquist grounds much of this history in geographic terms, understanding that party bases were primarily regional in nature. For example, in the decades after the Civil War, presidential elections were primarily waged between a solid Democratic South and an equally-Republican North (especially New England), (sound familiar, but with the parties reversed?). In short, Sundquist’s book deepened my understanding of what drove the numbers in those tabulations and the colors on those maps.

Sundquist, who died on February 17, 2016 at the age of 100, was a research fellow at the Brookings Institution from 1965 to 1985 (directing its Governmental Studies section for a time), after which he maintained a small office on an upper floor.

I was lucky enough to be an (unpaid) intern at Brookings in the summer of 1986. Two years later, fter graduating from Yale, I started a one-year stint as a governmental studies research assistant.

One dark night, I was still there well past 5 pm. Wandering the halls, I found myself in front of Sundquist’s office. A light was on; he was working inside. I quietly knocked on the door, and he called me into his office.

I recall little of our brief conversation other than praising Dynamics, but he was exceptionally friendly and expressed a sincere interest in my career plans. If I were already planning to apply to doctoral programs in political science, I would have sought his advice on that as well. We probably also talked about Professors Mayhew and Edward Tufte, who had changed my life in 1986 by telling me to “introduce yourself to David Mayhew.”

Afterward, I wondered why this lovely man had been “exiled” to an upper floor, but he seemed content with the situation, being an effectively-retired 73-year-old man.

In the end, I love Dynamics because it reminds me of something Tufte once said in class, “If your data are boring, then you have the wrong data.” There is no reason why any academic—or non-academic—work of non-fiction cannot be presented in both a thoroughly-researched and entertaining manner.

Rest in peace, Mr. Sundquist.

Honorable mentions.

I could fill this section with books by Mayhew (this being his most famous) and Tufte (especially this), all of which share Dynamics’ broad readability, or a handful of works on American electoral geography/political culture, but I instead choose these five titles (which proved harder than I expected).

Presidential Primaries and the Dynamics of Public Choice by Larry Bartels

I first encountered this book because I was the teaching assistant for a spring 1992 Harvard undergraduate course on the presidential nominating process; I read it right along with the students. At the time, there had only been a handful of presidential elections (1976, 1980, 1984, 1988) in which primary and caucus voters had completely selected each party’s nominee prior to the summer nominating conventions. This is why Bartels’ work was so exciting and groundbreaking: it was the first systematic study of how this process worked. I was so taken with it that I even tried to replicate some of its “momentum” graphics in my burgeoning doctoral thesis (the one I never finished).

An Economic Theory of Democracy by Anthony Downs

This highly-readable 1957 treatise about the way political parties are expected to behave under various political systems and voter distributions (e.g., the relative mix of liberal and conservative voters) is especially relevant today as American politics becomes ever-more polarized. For much of American history, enough voters were neither purely on the left nor purely on the right so that “median” voters were easy to locate. Two (and only two) stable political parties, one mostly center-left and one mostly center-right were thus forced to find common ground in a quest to win over these “median” voters. More recently, though, America has drifted toward a system in which most voters are firmly on one side or the other, making finding that common ground more elusive.

The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed by David Stockman

To a large degree, I love this excellent political memoir (Stockman served as Reagan’s first Director of the Office of Management and Budget) because I do not share its author’s ideological viewpoint. Stockman was a staunch fiscal conservative who genuinely believed in 1980 that a radical combination of deep personal income tax cuts and federal spending reductions would produce considerable long-term economic benefits. He was also the Cassandra who first warned about the mountain of red ink (massive federal budget deficits) that ultimately did result from passing the tax cuts without commensurate spending cuts. His observation that, politically speaking, tax cuts are fairly popular and easy to pass while spending cuts exact unbearable pain, yielded the book’s title. There may be better political memoirs, but few are more poignant.

[Quick observation: Mondale was pilloried for declaring in his acceptance speech that these already-looming deficits would require the next president to raise taxes, and that he was admitting up front that he would do so (which  both George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton ultimately did, with both punished for their fiscal responsibility). That was a moment of rare political courage that got lost in raw political calculation. The triumph of politics, indeed.]

The American Voter by Angus Campbell, William E. Converse, Warren E. Miller and Donald E. Stokes

Before this landmark 1960 work, written by four political scientists and opinion researchers at the University of Michigan, the prevailing (somewhat naïve) view (see here, for example) was that voting decisions were based primarily on a combination of demographic traits, social class, inter-personal relationships and mass media. While this is not, strictly speaking, untrue, Campbell and his colleagues found something different: that voting decisions were almost exclusively based on party identification, itself usually acquired from one’s parents. This book, then, marks the beginning of the modern study of voting behavior—one that is far more “tribalistic” than we may want to believe.

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Christopher L. Hayes

OK, this page-turning modern classic is not, per se, a book about politics (much less a work of political science). However, I wanted to include at least one contemporary work (besides Mayhew’s recent books) addressing our current cultural and political climate, and other than this paradigm-shifting look at American history, this is the best, even after acknowledging that Nell and I are devoted watchers of the MSNBC weeknight 8-11 pm lineup[3]. Hayes uses a series of institutional “crises” (the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, the 2007-08 financial collapse, the failures of intelligence that led to the Iraq War, etc.) to illustrate how the laudable idea of meritocracy—the notion that societal advancement should be based solely on ability and achievement, not birthright or social class—slowly corrupted nearly every key American institution. In many ways, the system really is rigged, resulting in untenable economic inequalities, which both political parties need to find a way to address substantively sooner rather than later; color me optimistic.

To be continued…

[1] It may well have been a day in late 1982, as I stood in the upstairs parents’ bedroom of a close friend, leafing through a Newsweek magazine whose cover story previewed a possible Democratic presidential nomination battle between Mondale and Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy (who ultimately did not run). From what I was reading, Mondale seemed to have that Goldilocks “just right” quality.

[2] Sundquist, James L., 1983, Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States (revised edition). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, pg. 134.

[3] We usually start by watching the last few minutes of Hardball, as the girls are getting ready for bed. The girls then go to sleep in the latter half of “Chris,” definitely before the start of “Rachel.” Nell and the dog generally go to bed at “first commercial Lawrence.” Who needs clocks?

The Butterfly (ballot) Effect

It is a curious fact that on November 10, 2002, just two days after the United Nations (UN) Security Council passed Resolution 144, requiring Iraq to readmit UN weapons inspectors and comply with prior Security Council resolutions, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, M.D. gave the keynote address at the 2002 Annual Meeting and Expo of the American Public Health Association (APHA).

The meeting was held that year in Philadelphia, and I was in the audience for that address. As a political junkie, I knew who Dean was, but I had never heard him speak. Like nearly everyone else in that room, though, I was riveted. Given the venue and Dean’s background as an internist, he primarily called for universal health insurance (paid for by a full repeal of the 2001 tax cuts) among other health-related issues.

But in style and tone, he sounded very much like a man who wanted to be the Democratic nominee for president in 2004 against President George Walker Bush.

And by the time he formally announced his candidacy on June 23, 2003, I had already attended a handful of “Meet-Ups” organized in support of his likely candidacy.

Dean would ultimately lose the nomination to Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. Kerry and running-mate Senator John Edwards of North Carolina would then lose narrowly to Bush (had Kerry flipped 80,000 votes in Ohio, he would have won the Electoral College [EV] 271-267, while still losing the popular vote by 2.4 percentage points).

As usual, vote totals come from Dave Leip’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.

The keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention was given by a little-known candidate for the United States (US) Senate (Senate) from Illinois named Barack Obama. Obama would easily win his Senate race that fall over Republican Alan Keyes.

Meanwhile, on February 12, 2005, Dean was elected Chair of the Democratic National Committee. Over the next four years, he would oversee the Democratic recapture of the US House of Representatives (House) and Senate in 2006, as well as the election of Obama as the first African-American president in 2008.

Dean’s greatest legacy, however, was being one of the first Democratic officials to call for an end to the Iraq War, which had launched on March 19, 2003. That mantle would be taken up a few years later by Obama in his battle against New York Senator Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Obama would single out Clinton’s October 11, 2002 vote in favor of authorizing President Bush “to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to (1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and (2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.”[1]

Here is the full text of that resolution:

H. J. Res. 114

The Iraq War lasted until December 15, 2011, by which time some 5,000 coalition troops and well over 100,000 Iraqi civilians had died (including deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein); more precise estimates are difficult to locate.

Rather than re-litigating the Iraq War, I simply state my firm belief that it does not happen if a few thousand voters in Palm Beach County, FL, intending to vote for Vice President Albert A. Gore, Jr. in the 2000 presidential election but confused by Florida’s “butterfly ballot,” had not mistakenly voted for Reform Party nominee Patrick J. Buchanan instead.

FL 2000 ballot

Yes, Gore gave a speech in San Francisco, CA on September 23, 2002 in which he declared himself open to future multilateral military action against Iraq for its ongoing defiance of UN inspections and sanctions. However, that speech was specifically in response to the authorization resolution then approaching final passage in the House and Senate.

In an alternate world in which Al Gore is president in 2002, the wording of that speech (calling the resolution far too broad and vague while explicitly de-linking Iraq from the September 11, 2001 attacks) tells me that no such resolution would have been proposed in Congress in 2002. And if it had, he would not have actively supported it the way President Bush did, convincing 29 (of 51[2]) Democrats to vote “Yes.”

Simply put: no authorizing resolution, no Iraq War (at least, not one that we would recognize).

**********

I recently speculated about the impact of a counterfactual Tom Dewey victory over President Harry Truman in 1948.

A few nights ago my wife Nell asked me if “I was done with Dewey.” Not sure what she meant, I started to talk about my interest in the counterfactual that Dutch Schultz does assassinate then-Special-Prosecutor Dewey in 1935.

“Basically, not much would have changed as…”

“No,” she gently interrupted my stream of consciousness, “I mean are you still writing about ‘what if so-and-so’ had won?”

“Maaaybe… why?”

“Because I am really interested in what would have happened if Gore had beaten Bush.”

[I paraphrase somewhat, but this is the gist of the conversation.]

I started to demur (having never “taken requests” before), but then I quickly became excited by the possibilities.

Just bear with me, then, while I briefly review the 2000 US presidential election.

Because President William J. Clinton could not seek a third term under Amendment XXII to the US Constitution, two Democrats (Gore and former New Jersey Senator William W. Bradley) and 13 Republicans (all but six of whom—then-Texas-governor Bush, Arizona Senator John McCain, Keyes, businessman Steve Forbes, conservative activist Gary Bauer, and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch—had withdrawn by the end of 1999) ran for president in 2000.

Gore would sweep the nominating contests, eventually choosing Connecticut Senator Joseph I. Lieberman as his running mate; Lieberman was the first Jewish major-party nominee for president or vice president.

Bush would face a serious challenge from McCain, who won the New Hampshire primary on February 1 48.5 to 30.4%. However, McCain dropped out of the race on March 9, after losing the majority of Super Tuesday states two days earlier. Bush would ultimately name former Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney as his running-mate.

The general election campaign was, frankly, boring. Bush led by a narrow, but consistent, margin in the public polling, though that margin had dropped to an average of just 2.0 percentage points by Election Day (November 7).  Complicating matters were the candidacies of Buchanan and Green Party nominee Ralph Nader.

My enduring memory of that election night is this sequence of events:

  • CNN declares Gore the winner of Florida, essentially making Gore the next president
  • CNN retracts that call, calling Florida “too close to call”
  • CNN declares Bush the winner of Florida, making him the next president
  • CNN retracts its call a second time, again calling Florida “too close to call”
  • Well after 2 am, I go to sleep

You may read about five weeks of hanging chads here. The upshot is that Bush was ultimately declared the winner of Florida—and the presidency—by 537 votes (out of 5,963,110 votes cast in Florida, and 105,425,985 cast nationwide).

Somewhat lost in the Florida recount drama was that Gore won the popular vote by almost 550,000 votes (48.4 to 47.9%).

**********

The least-complicated path to a Gore victory in 2000 is through the Palm Beach County voters who mistakenly voted for Buchanan. Had they voted “correctly,” Gore likely nets some 5,000 votes and is declared the winner early on the morning of November 8, 2000. Florida Governor John Ellis “Jeb” Bush quietly signals to his older brother George that a recount is not worth the trouble, and the latter graciously concedes to Gore.

One thing would have changed immediately.

Once Lieberman was sworn in as vice president on January 20, 2001, the Connecticut’s Republican governor, John Rowland, would have appointed a Republican to replace him in the Senate (assuming two-thirds of the solidly Democratic legislature approved), giving Republicans a temporary 51-49 Senate majority. Under Connecticut law, though, a special election would have been held on or about August 31 (160 non-weekend days from January 20).

In our actual timeline, Vice President Cheney’s tie-breaking vote Senate gave the Republicans the majority, despite a split 50-50. That changed on May 24, 2001, when Republican Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont switched his party affiliation to Independent and began to caucus with the Democrats, effectively giving the latter a 51-49 majority.

With Gore as president, it is highly unlikely Jeffords switches parties (though he and Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island—who both voted against H. J. Res. 114—would have continued to vote with the Democrats much of the time). However, it is also likely that only a very moderate Republican (Representative Chris Shays? former Senator and Governor Lowell Weicker?) would have won 2/3 approval of Connecticut’s General Assembly. Either way, a Democrat would have been a slight favorite to win the special election, restoring the Democrats 50-50 majority (with Vice President Lieberman the tie-breaker).

Meanwhile, the Republicans only had a nine-seat majority in the House, 222-213, including two Independents: one who typically voted with the Democrats (Bernie Sanders of Vermont) and one who typically voted with the Republicans (Virgil Goode of Virginia).

The bottom line is this: Gore and Lieberman, having just won a narrow surprise victory (294-244 EV; 0.5 percentage points) would have faced a nominally Republican Congress—and an evenly divided nation.

**********

In my remarkably-similar Dewey victory scenario, I argued that nominating General Dwight D. Eisenhower as Secretary of State would be the best unifying move he could make, while also eliminating a future rival for the presidency.

I argue Gore would have made an analogous move: appointing former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Colin Powell as Secretary of State or, less likely, Secretary of Defense.

Of course, that is exactly what President Bush did, making Powell the first African-American Secretary of State.

If Gore named Powell Secretary of Defense instead, I believe he names the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph R. Biden, Jr. of Delaware, as Secretary of State. He may also have kept Madeline Albright on as Secretary of State, but I suspect he would have wanted to choose his own person.

Both men would have easily won Senate confirmation.

If Powell became Secretary of State, then a fascinating choice for Secretary of Defense would have been McCain. McCain may well have been too hawkish for Gore (and most Democrats), but the idea is worthy of consideration if only because of McCain’s bipartisan instincts and his closeness to Lieberman.[3]

Not to wander too far down a speculative rabbit hole, but having replaced the first female Secretary of State with a man, he could then have made history by nominating the first female Secretary of the Treasury (even if Lawrence Summers had only been serving in that role since July 2, 1999). Strong candidates include Alice Rivlin, former director of the Office of Management and Budget, or Janet Yellen, who had recently served on the White House Council of Economic Advisors (and in 2014 would become the first female Chair of the US Federal Reserve Board of Governors).

Finally, while he may have been tired of serving after having spent the previous eight years as Secretary of the Interior, I think Bruce Babbitt would have been considered for Attorney General.

**********

It is difficult to remember post-9/11 how good things generally were in the US in January 2001. While the economy was slowing down (and would actually enter an eight-month-long recession in March 2001), it had been growing since July 1995, averaging 4.3-percentage-point quarterly increases in real Gross Domestic Product. The federal government actually ran surpluses in Fiscal Years 1999 and 2000. The US was not at war, even accounting for ongoing conflict in the Balkans. Terrorism was not a perceived threat, despite 1998 attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and an attack on the USS Cole in 2000; all three attacks were launched by an Islamic militant organization called al-Qaeda, led by Osama Bin Laden.

The Bush Administration rode these budget surpluses to passage of massive tax cuts (Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act) on June 7, 2001. I still remember receiving my $300 rebate check. Bush himself was fairly popular, averaging 56.6% approval (vs. 31.4% disapproval) in Gallup polls.

My surmise is that President Gore, facing a nominally Republican Congress, calls for much smaller, targeted tax cuts.

But otherwise, he would almost certainly have used the budget surpluses to pay for his top domestic priority (besides preventing the Social Security trust fund from being raided, brilliantly parodied here): battling climate change.

We can argue about the economic impact of the 2001 (and 2003) Bush tax cuts. However, on this point I stand firm: Iraq War aside, the loss of eight years of action to reverse the human-activity-caused warming of the Earth’s atmosphere was the single worst impact of Bush’s victory.[4]

**********

And then came the morning of September 11, 2001.

I am agnostic on whether the Bush Administration “should” have known an attack like that was coming, although there is evidence they…misunderestimated…warning signs. Still, to know that al-Qaeda was going to attack those targets in that way on that day is absurd. Was there a clear, if vague, threat? Yes. Could 9/11 have been prevented? I have absolutely no idea.

So I must conclude that 9/11, or something similar, still happens.

Outside of doing everything in his power to capture (or kill) Bin Laden, and not using the attack as the pretext to invade Iraq, I cannot say with certainty how the Gore Administration would have handled such an event.

I will always give President Bush credit for his immediate response: calming the nation in a televised address, standing with his bullhorn at Ground Zero, and immediately going into Afghanistan in search of al Qaeda.

I have no doubt President Gore would have behaved remarkably similarly—calm, resolute and determined.

It is after that I think their paths diverge.

Would there still have been a Patriot Act and, by extension, a Department of Homeland Security? We cannot know for sure, but I think the answer is no.

Would there still have been a War on Terror? Possibly, but it would have looked very different; it would not have been used (like the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) to justify all manner of foreign policy interventions. My evidence for this, again, is Gore’s September 2002 speech.

The counter-argument is that no Democrat ever wants to appear weak on national security matters, although Gore’s own service in Vietnam—and the presence of Powell—would have insulated him somewhat.

On balance, then, the response to 9/11 would have very similar in the short term (most notably, the invasion of Afghanistan), but very different in the longer term (no Patriot Act, no “War on Terror”—and no Iraq War).

**********

In the actual 2002 midterm elections, the Republicans defied recent history by netting two Senate and eight House seats; based on the average of the previous five midterm elections for a newly-elected president, Republicans should have lost one Senate seat and 15 House seats.[5] These atypical gains resulted in part from a rally-‘round-the flag effect of the ongoing response to 9/11 (chart from here).

1200px-George_W_Bush_approval_ratings_with_events.svg

Under President Gore, would Democrats have gained two Senate seats, or lost one? Would they have gained eight House seats, or lost 15? Let’s split the difference: the Democrats net one Senate seat (giving them a 51-49 edge), while losing only three or four House seats.

This makes the 2002 midterm elections effectively a wash.

It is in 2004, however, that things get dicey for the Gore-Lieberman ticket.

The 1856 US presidential election was the first in which a Democratic nominee (James Buchanan) faced a Republican nominee (John C. Fremont); Buchanan won. Since then there have been nine elections (1880, 1884, 1908, 1912, 1932, 1944, 1948, 1952, 1992) in which the party controlling the White House sought a fourth, fifth or sixth consecutive term; that party won only four (44%) of those elections. Limiting those elections to the five in which only a fourth consecutive term was being sought, the percentage improves to three out of five (60%).

However, there has only been one such opportunity (President George H. W. Bush losing reelection in 1992) since 1952, when Adlai Stevenson failed to win a sixth consecutive Democratic victory. And all eight previous such elections occurred when one party tended to control the White House (Republicans won all but four elections from 1860 to 1928, Democrats won all but two elections from 1932 to 1964). Starting in 1968, though, Republicans held the White House for 28 of 48 years (through 2016)—and a Gore Administration would have brought Democrats to parity.

In other words, short of capturing Bin Laden (say, at Tora Bora in December 2001), it would have been very difficult for Democrats to win a fourth consecutive term in 2004.

Who would have beaten the Gore-Lieberman ticket?

Since 1980, Republicans have tended to nominate the runner-up from the previous contested nomination (Ronald Reagan 1980, G.H.W. Bush 1988, Bob Dole 1996, McCain 2008, Mitt Romney 2012), implying McCain would have been the prohibitive front-runner had he run in 2004.

The growing ever-more-conservative wing of the party still viewed him with suspicion in 2008 (one reason he chose Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate), so he would likely have been challenged from the right. Possible candidates (who actually ran in 2008 or 2012) include Representative Ron Paul (R-TX), Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, Representative Tom Tancredo (R-CO), Texas Governor Rick Perry and Representative Michelle Bachmann (R-MN). Of those candidates, only Huckabee (7), Santorum (11) and Gingrich (2) ever won any primaries or caucuses.

Ultimately, though, it is hard to see anyone wresting the nomination from McCain.

Who would McCain then have chosen as his running mate?

“Conventional” picks include Jeb Bush, especially given the importance of Florida in 2000, and three Ohioans: former Representative John Kasich (who ran briefly in 2000), Senator Mike DeWine and Governor Bob Taft. Whoever had won more social conservative votes between Huckabee and Santorum could have made a good “unity” pick, while Thompson’s aw-shucks conservatism (and acting career) would have been appealing as well.

He also could have considered three women: North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole, Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle. Either of Maine’s two Senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, would have been deemed too moderate.

My guess?

None of the above.

That McCain wanted his close friend Lieberman to be his 2008 running mate shows how important that personal connection was to him. I do not know if he was as close to McCain in 2004 as he is now, but my gut tells me he picks South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who had become a conservative darling as one of the House prosecutors in President Clinton’s January 1999 Senate impeachment trial.

There is one more reason why I think the McCain-Graham ticket wins in 2004: no Karl Rove.

As Bush’s chief strategist, Rove emphasized maximizing base turnout over “running to the center.” One way he did this was through controversial 2004 state ballot initiatives on such issues as gay marriage and stem cell research.

But if Bush loses in 2000, Rove never gets the chance to use that strategy in 2004, likely altering Republican strategy for the next 12 years. McCain is thus free to re-run his 2000 nomination-contest playbook: appealing to Independents and like-minded Democrats (while Graham shores up the Republican base).

It works, in my opinion, with McCain holding Bush’s 244 EV while adding Florida (27), Michigan (17) and New Mexico (5), winning 293 to 245.

Of course, whichever ticket won in 2004 would have faced the same rough four years President Bush actually did: Hurricane Katrina, the near-collapse of the auto industry, the Great Recession of 2007-08, and so forth. And it is easy to imagine an aggressive McCain committing American troops around the world (perhaps even in…wait for it…Iraq).

Who would then defeat President McCain in 2008? It would not have been Dean (without Bush, he never runs for president) or Obama (who bides his time by winning reelection to the Senate in 2010). Probable candidates include Clinton, Edwards (who wins reelection in 2004), Biden, Lieberman, Kerry and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. I do not think former Representative Richard Gephardt (D-MO) or Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd run.

Clinton is almost certainly the prohibitive front-runner (especially without an Iraq War vote to defend), but any of these candidates (pre-Rielle-Hunter Edwards, in particular) could have given her a tough time.

And with a Democratic victory in 2008—Clinton-Edwards? Biden-Clinton? Clinton-Richardson?—we loop back into a familiar timeline.

Albeit one in which…

  1. The Iraq War as we know it never happens,
  2. Addressing climate change is a top domestic priority,
  3. The War on Terror never happens,
  4. There is no Patriot Act or Department of Homeland Security,
  5. No Child Left Behind and the prescription drug bill (Medicare Part D) never exist,
  6. Tax cuts are smaller and more targeted,
  7. The budget surpluses of 1999-2000 are not eliminated by tax cuts, two wars and the prescription drug bill, and
  8. Very possibly, the US elects a female president in 2008.

Until next time…

[1] H.J.Res. 114 — 107th Congress: Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.

[2] This total includes Independent Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont, who was caucusing with the Democrats.

[3] McCain now says he regrets not choosing Lieberman as his running-mate in 2008.

[4] Point of personal privilege: in the 1990s, I dated a woman who earned her doctorate in chemistry from MIT. She s spent the summer of 1994 in New Zealand analyzing data on the shrinking ozone layer gathered by planes that would fly from New Zealand over the Antarctic. Her doctoral adviser, Mario Molina, was a co-recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his groundbreaking work in atmospheric chemistry. Climate change is real, and we humans are causing it. Full stop.

[5] These are the median values from 1970, 1978, 1982, 1990 and 1994. I used the median, rather than the averages (-2 Senate seats, -23 House seats) to avoid extreme skew from the Democratic performance in 1994 (Bill Clinton’s first midterm election: a net loss of nine Senate and 54 House seats).

What if Dewey HAD defeated Truman…

This is one of the most iconic photographs in American history.

Dewey Defeats Truman

Easy as it is now to mock the editors of the Chicago Tribune for jumping the gun on the 1948 presidential election, they were merely anticipating what Americans thought was going to happen: incumbent Democratic president Harry S Truman (who had become president in April 1945 after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt) would be soundly defeated by the Republican nominee, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey.

As Zachary Karabell wrote in The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election:

“There was a full month left, and every informed observer believed that it was already over. Not even bookies would take bets on Dewey. But the candidates couldn’t just quit. Dewey couldn’t simply retreat to his Pawling farm and wait for the inevitable, and Truman wasn’t about to get off his train and concede defeat. They may have been going through the motions, but the motions were important. It was imperative that each of them play his part, if not to perfection, then at least convincingly. Because for all the prognostications, the election lay weeks in the future and the future might hold surprises.”[1]

Further, having “decided that the outcome was sealed, reporters and commentators ignored signs that might have pointed in a different direction.”[2] Despite the fact that the three major pollsters—Gallup, Roper and Crossley—had shown Truman gaining in mid-October polls[3], no poll was conducted in the final two weeks of the campaign[4].

An average of these final, mid-October polls showed Dewey ahead 50.8 to 42.5, with the remaining 6.7% split between the two main independent candidates (State’s Rights [aka Dixiecrat] J. Strom Thurmond and Progressive Henry A. Wallace), other third-party candidates and undecided voters. Two months earlier, Truman had been polling around 34%, so he had gained some 8.5 percentage points, while Dewey had been polling around 47.5%, so he had gained about 3.3 percentage points[5]. Truman was clearly netting voters…but nobody thought it would be enough.[6]

Dewey and his advisors on the “Victory Express”—Truman was not the only candidate with a campaign train—saw the tightening polls. However, they chose to continue their “dignified, sincere, and clean” strategy of projecting a “noble mien.”[7] And while it is a myth that Dewey sat back and waited for the electoral verdict (he had traveled 16,000 miles to Truman’s 22,000 miles[8]), he had not campaigned with nearly the same zeal or urgency as Truman (or Thurmond or Wallace, for that matter).

One Cassandra did try to shake the Dewey campaign out of its complacency. Edward Hutton (of E. F. Hutton) sent a telegram to the Dewey campaign nine days before the election “warning that contrary to all the polls and pundits, defeat was in the air unless Dewey showed some hints of the toughness he once exuded as a prosecutor.”[9]

Hutton was prescient.

On November 3, 1948, Truman won 49.6% of the popular vote, Dewey won 45.1%, and Thurmond and Wallace each won 2.4%, with the remaining 0.6% divided among a variety of third-party candidates and write-in votes. Overall, Truman beat Dewey by just over 2.1 million votes. The 531 Electoral College votes (EV) were divided thus: Truman 303 (28 states), Dewey 189 (16), Thurmond 39 (Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina).

Dewey had fallen just 77 EV short of the 266 he needed to win. Had he won about 18,000 more votes in California (47.6-47.1%), 34,000 in Illinois (50.1-49.2%) and 8,000 (49.5-49.2%) in Ohio, he and his running mate, California Governor Earl Warren, would have won the 1948 presidential election, saving the Chicago Tribune decades of embarrassment.

**********

Inspired by Cody Franklin and his entertainingly inventive website AlternativeHistoryHub, I conducted a thought experiment:

What if Dewey had won California, Illinois and Ohio in 1948, and he, not Truman, had been sworn in as president of the United States on January 20, 1949.

My answers—which are purely speculative, obviously—surprised me.

First, though, let us consider how Dewey could have won.

The simplest way would have been for Dewey, once the polls began tightening in early October, to heed Hutton’s warning. A more aggressive stance against Truman (more on this later) would have been catnip to a bored press corps, who in turn would have eagerly written stories about how the “exciting” and “engaged” Dewey was taking nothing for granted and battling to the very end. This, in turn, would have caught the attention of a sleepy electorate…and, in this scenario, just enough of them vote for Dewey, rather than Truman, in California, Illinois and Ohio (and perhaps Idaho, Iowa, Nevada and Wisconsin—all decided by <5 percentage points) to give Dewey a narrow Electoral College victory.

The thing is, even if Dewey had won all seven of these states (giving him 23 to Truman’s 21), he would almost certainly still have lost the popular vote by more than 1 million votes, becoming the third Republican president to win an Electoral College majority while losing the popular vote.

Moreover, in this counterfactual universe, the Democrats still likely recapture the United States House of Representatives (House) and Senate (Senate), though perhaps not by 92 and 12 seats, respectively.

At the same time, however, the Democratic Party itself would have been severely fractured, having lost its first presidential election in 20 years. Truman’s victory is even more astonishing when you consider that two former Democrats—Thurmond, the segregationist governor of South Carolina, and Wallace, Roosevelt’s populist Vice President (1941-45)—had run against him form the right and left, respectively.

On July 14, 1948—towards the end of the Democratic National Convention that would nominate Truman and Kentucky Senator Alben Barkley for president and vice president—Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey gave a rousing speech in favor of a strong civil rights plank (“I say the time has come to walk out of the shadow of states’ rights and into the sunlight of human rights!”). This led the Alabama and Mississippi delegations to leave the Philadelphia convention hall in protest. Meeting in Birmingham, Alabama on July 17, what became the State’s Rights Party (which saw itself as the true representatives of southern Democrats) nominated Thurmond and Mississippi Governor Fielding L. Wright for president and vice president.

Wallace, meanwhile, had broken with Truman on September 12, 1946. That day, then-Commerce-Secretary Wallace gave a speech in New York City’s Madison Square Garden (which he always insisted had been approved by Truman) in which he outlined a far more accommodating view toward the Soviet Union (seeing the two nations as morally equivalent within their spheres of influence) than the political establishments of either party. He also called for the newly-formed United Nations (UN) to control all atomic weapons. Truman, pressured by Secretary of State James Byrnes, asked for—and received—Wallace’s resignation. Less than two years later, on July 23, 1948, the Progressive Party would meet in Philadelphia and nominate Wallace and Idaho Senator Glen H. Taylor for president and vice president.

It is noteworthy here that Truman, as he fought to win reelection, sounded more and more like a liberal populist in the last month of the campaign.[10]

In sum, then, the political bottom line is this:

After being expected to win easily, President Dewey would only have eked out a narrow Electoral College victory while losing the popular vote by 2-3 percentage points. And while the Democratic Party may have been fracturing, it would still have solidly controlled both the House and Senate, though in this alternate world, more Republican House and Senate candidates win outside the South (where the Republican Party effectively did not exist), making southern Democrats an outright majority of Democrats in both the House and Senate. [11].

And here is where I make my first prediction.

Dewey and Warren were both moderate governors who had campaigned in platitudes of unity more than specific policy proposals. They also had zero foreign policy experience.

Dewey’s choice of Secretary of State would thus have been vitally important. And I believe that the obvious choice would have been General Dwight David Eisenhower.

Anti-Truman Democrats had tried to convince the popular World War II hero to accept the Democratic nomination, while Dewey worried about his entry into the Republican nominating contest right up until the July conventions, when Eisenhower unequivocally announced he would not accept either party’s nomination.[12]

But Eisenhower still loomed on the horizon for 1952, and Dewey could have eliminated that threat by naming Eisenhower his Secretary of State. Despite having just become president of Columbia University, I cannot see the long-time military man Eisenhower (who we now know was a Republican) refusing a direct request from a president-elect.

I also suspect that the practical Dewey, who by all account built quality staffs throughout his career, would have had a fairly bipartisan and non-ideological Cabinet.

Meanwhile, it would have been Dewey and Eisenhower (not Truman and George C. Marshall, Secretary of State since January 1947) who would have faced these immediate foreign policy crises:

–August 29, 1949: The Soviet Union successfully tests its own atomic bomb. Does a President Dewey order the creation of the hydrogen bomb, as President Truman did?

–October 1, 1949: Mao Zedong proclaims the People’s Republic of China, creating a second Communist superpower. The accusation (fair or not) that Truman “lost” China, and was thus not tough enough on Communism, would instead have been hurled at the inexperienced Dewey, though mitigated by the stature of Eisenhower (and the fact that Dewey could still point back to Truman).

–June 25, 1950: 75,000 soldiers from the North Korean People’s Army cross into the American-backed Republic of Korea, in what has been described as the first military action of the Cold War. Does President Dewey order American troops to the Korean peninsula in July 1950, making what could have been “just” a civil war into a proxy war between the United States (and its allies) and the Soviet Union (and its allies)?

Given the emerging bipartisan consensus that Communism was an international threat that needed to be contained, combined with Dewey’s and Warren’s own lack of foreign policy experience and the internationalist slant of the 1948 Republican Party platform[13], my best guess is that our foreign policy would have changed little. If pressed, I would argue Dewey also orders more advanced nuclear weapons. However, I think the responses to Mao and the invasion of South Korea would have been more muted; it is just possible not as many troops are sent to Korea and an armistice is achieved much sooner. After all, it only took President Eisenhower six months to achieve the armistice which still holds.

Of course, this means that there would have been no dramatic firing of General Douglas MacArthur on April 11, 1951, after he openly bucked President Truman on whether to bomb and invade China.

**********

As important as those crises were, I think the most profound change would have been no McCarthyism (at least, not then).

On February 9, 1950, first-term Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin gave a speech in Wheeling, WV during which he waved what he claimed was a list of 205 Communists, known to Secretary of State Marshall, who had infiltrated the State Department.[14] That he was ultimately unable to name a single one did not prevent the rise of McCarthyism, a tactic of using unsubstantiated claims of Communist sympathy (or other scurrilous description) to defame reputations.

While an emboldened McCarthy, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations (and its permanent subcommittee on investigations), eventually took on President Eisenhower (and lost), I have a difficult time seeing McCarthy challenging a State Department run by Eisenhower in February 1950.

It is also just possible that the McCarran Internal Security Act, requiring the registration of “Communist” agencies with the United States Attorney General, never passes (over Truman’s veto!), though that is merely speculation on my part.

That is foreign and national security policy. What about domestic policy?

**********

Before I answer that question, just bear with me while I briefly review the life of the man Alice Roosevelt Longworth once (wrongly) derided as “the little man on top of the wedding cake.”[15]

Thomas Edmund Dewey was born in Owosso, MI, on March 24, 1902. His father, George Martin Dewey, was editor of The Owosso Times and deeply involved in local Republican politics. After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1923, his first thought was to pursue a career in music; he had an excellent baritone. As a backup plan, he enrolled at Columbia Law School in September 1923, graduating in only two years.

After a stint in private practice, the 29-year-old Dewey was appointed chief assistant to George Medalie, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY). In 1933, after Dewey was himself appointed U.S. Attorney for SDNY after Medalie’s abrupt resignation, he secured the conviction of mobster Waxey Gordon (aka Irving Wechsler) for income tax evasion.

Two years later, he was appointed Special Prosecutor and charged with prosecuting such organized crime figures as Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Arthur Flegenheimer, aka Dutch Schultz.

Allegedly, Dewey’s investigations so unnerved Schultz he planned to have Dewey killed, going so far as to monitor the routine of the clockwork Dewey; Dewey took the threats in stride, refusing to alter his routine. However, rather than face the heat that would result from Dewey’s assassination, Luciano reportedly ordered contract killers from Murder, Inc. to kill Schultz. While dining with confederates in the Palace Chop House in Newark, NJ on the night of October 23, 1935, Schultz and his confederates were gunned down by unidentified men

[Side note 1: I love this reenactment of the death of Schultz from one of favorite “guilty pleasures, the entertaining {and historically inaccurate} The Cotton Club.]

[Side note 2: I cannot recommend highly enough Murder, Inc. but Burton Turkus and Sid Feder.

[Side note 3: Writing this, I wonder how history would have changed if Schultz actually had killed Dewey in 1935. But that is an entirely different post.]

Dewey would send Luciano and 71 other people to prison before easily being elected New York District Attorney in 1937; he served only one term. He first ran for governor of New York in 1938, losing narrowly to Democrat Herbert H. Lehman.

Still, this was enough for national Republicans to try to secure the presidential nomination for the 38-year-old Dewey, though he ultimately lost the nomination to Wendell Willkie (who in turn was soundly defeated by President Roosevelt).

In a 1942 rematch, Dewey beat Governor Lehman handily, ultimately serving three four-year terms as governor.

In 1944, Dewey was the Republican nominee for president, losing to President Roosevelt. Four years later, he would beat Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen and Ohio Senator Robert Taft (among others) for the Republican nomination…and that brings us back to the election of 1948.

**********

Two facts about Dewey’s pre-1948 career strike me as relevant.

One, when Dewey was appointed Special Prosecutor in 1935, he chose a black woman lawyer named Eunice Hunton Carter to be his deputy assistant. Carter was instrumental in the indictment and conviction of Luciano, as she organized a series of 200 raids on Luciano-run brothels, ultimately finding three women to testify against him.[16]

Two, as governor of New York, Dewey appointed the first state commission to eliminate religious and racial discrimination in employment.

Couple these racially progressive actions with a) a 1948 Republican Party platform that, while otherwise “filled with vague promises and vapid language,”[17] did include a modest anti-racial-discrimination plank and b) a Democratic Party cracking between Northern liberals and Southern segregationists, and I propose the following.

Seeking to capitalize on Democratic Party divisions on race and finding himself hemmed in politically, President Dewey decides to take bold action on racial equality, effectively starting the Civil Rights movement as early as 1949. This single action, with the potential to lure black voters back to the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln after 16 years of voting for President Roosevelt, would have fundamentally altered American politics for decades.

Remember, for Dewey even to have won this narrow victory in 1948, he would had to have taken bold and assertive action in the last few weeks of the campaign. Perhaps he begins to highlight both his own actions and the anti-discrimination plank, putting Truman in a vice between the mistrusting liberals and the non-Dixiecrat southern Democrats.

It is equally possible (though far from certain) that the moderate (even liberal, other than on the death penalty) Dewey would have built a coalition of Northern Democrats and like-minded Republicans to advance more liberal policies, in much the same way President Ronald Reagan built a “conservative coalition” of Republicans and Southern Democrats in the early 1980s. This would have resembled President Richard Nixon’s first term, where he essentially ceded domestic policy to Congressional Democrats to focus on foreign policy.

**********

The cyclical nature of American politics suggests that, rather than losing 28 House and five Senate seats in the 1950 midterm elections, Democrats would have gained seats instead. And since the southern Congressional delegation was already uniformly Democratic, these newly-elected Democrats would almost certainly have been Northern Democrats who had run against the Dewey Administration from the left. This, in turn, could easily have led to a three-way split in Congress between Northern Democrats (led by now-Senator Humphrey?), centrists of both parties (led perhaps by Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas, who would become Democratic leader in 1953), and southern Democrats (who perhaps start to align with more conservative Republicans on overtly racial and virulently anti-Communist lines).

Assuming Dewey and Warren were renominated in 1952, they would have faced a Democratic Party continuing to split along geographic lines; Thurmond may well have run again, this time luring more key southern Democrats (e.g., Senator Richard Russell of Georgia) to support him.[18]

Russell, Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee and New York governor Averell Harriman actually were Illinois Governor Adlai E. Stevenson’s chief competition for the Democratic nominee for president in 1952. In the alternate universe of a President Dewey, it is possible that Harriman wages a stronger battle for convention delegates and defeats him. Or that Kefauver (the early balloting leader) formally breaks with the Southern Democrats and wrests the nomination.

Let’s say Stevenson and Kefauver are the presidential and vice-presidential nominees, in some order. In a universe where four or more nominally Democratic southern states vote for Thurmond, it is hard to see how Stevenson-Kefauver[19] (or vice versa) beats Dewey-Warren.

And here is where history really would have taken a left turn.

**********

On September 8, 1953, Chief Justice Fred Vinson (nominated by Truman in 1946) died.

In actuality, President Eisenhower, then in his first term, successfully nominated former California governor and 1948 vice-presidential nominee Earl Warren to be Chief Justice. The Warren Court had a profound impact on American life, most notably through the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954. This case overturned the precedent set six decades earlier in Plessy v. Ferguson, finding that “separate can never be equal.”

Warren knew the outcome of this case was going to be controversial, so he sought—and obtained—a unanimous 9-0 decision.

The Warren Court also handed down key decisions on legislative apportionment (Reynolds v. Sims), marriage (Loving v. Virginia), contraception (Griswold v. Connecticut) and criminal justice (Mapp v. Ohio, Miranda v. Arizona).

I have no idea who a President Dewey would have nominated to replace Chief Justice Vinson. But it is hard to imagine a different Chief Justice having the same impact on American life as Earl Warren did.

Simply put, if Thomas Dewey had won the presidency in 1948 and in 1952, there is almost certainly no Chief Justice Earl Warren. And with no Warren Court, it could well have taken years longer to desegregate the nation’s schools, codify the notion of “one person, one vote,” decriminalize interracial marriage and contraception, put reasonable limits on the seizure of evidence, and require all arrested persons to be properly and quickly informed of their Constitutional rights.

Instead, in this alternate universe, we are considering the possibility of the 65-year-old Warren himself seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 1956 (as he had in 1948). Had he run, it is not clear who else could have won the nomination. For example, it is unlikely that Nixon would have challenged a sitting Vice President from his own state rather than seek reelection to a second term.

An intriguing possibility is New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. In this alternate timeline, he runs for governor in 1950, rather in 1954. Or perhaps a first-term Senator from Arizona named Barry Goldwater would not have waited until 1964 to run for president (unless the realignment into the liberal Republican and conservative Democratic Parties had already begun, and Goldwater conservatives were joining the Democrats, while liberal Democrats were joining the Republicans).

And then there is the 66-year-old Eisenhower. The fact that he almost did not run for reelection in 1956 because of his health likely takes him out of contention.

So let us assume Warren is Republican nominee for president in 1956, perhaps with a border-state Democrat as his running mate. Or even Rockefeller himself.

Who would he have faced?

If the Democratic Party has healed its divisions, than the nomination battle in 1956 would have been a free-for-all between Stevenson, Kefauver, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Humphrey and (perhaps) Johnson—much like 1960 actually was, but four years earlier.

For some reason, a Kefauver-Kennedy ticket jumps out at me. The difficulty sitting Vice Presidents have had recently in winning the presidency in their own right implies the Democrats would have been modest favorites to win.

That said, if the southern Democrats had formed their own party by now, perhaps luring conservative Republicans, then Warren-Rockefeller could have won a three-way race with Kefauver-Kennedy and, say, Russell-Goldwater.

Who knows?

Beyond that, however, I dare not speculate…though I am curious what you think.

Well…one final thought. What so fascinates me about the 1948 presidential election is that while Harry Truman is my favorite president, the more I learn about Tom Dewey, particularly his prosecutorial efforts in the mid-1930s, the more intrigued I am. Love Truman though I do, I think Dewey would have been a solid president, not dissimilar to Eisenhower or the underrated first George Bush. I also do not want the hard-working Dewey to be nothing more than the guy who did NOT defeat Truman. He deserves more than that.

Until next time…

[1] Karabell, Zachary. 2000. The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. pg. 241.

[2] Ibid., pg. 242.

[3] Ibid., pg. 249.

[4] http://www.zetterberg.org/Lectures/l041115.htm

[5] Karabell, pg. 186.

[6] The enormity of the polling error was assessed by a post-election commission led by Harvard statistics Professor Frederick Mosteller. It concluded that by not conducting polls through Election Day, they missed a continued shift to Truman. Moreover, their use of quota sampling (as opposed to truly random sampling), a misunderstanding of how undecided voters would break and an inability to determine just who would vote made their samples (and resulting projections) statistically biased toward Dewey.

[7] Ibid., pg.250.

[8] Ibid., pg.252.

[9] Ibid., pg.250.

[10] Ibid., pp. 245-46.

[11] I define “Southern” as Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. In the timeline that actually occurred, southern Democrats occupied 118 (44.9%) of the 263 Democratic House seats and 26 (48.1%) of the 54 Democratic Senate seats.

[12] Karabell, pg. 152-53.

[13] Ibid., pp. 146.

[14] “U.S.Office Still Under Red Charge,” Lansing State Journal (Lansing, MI), February 11, 1950, pg. 1.

[15] I base this account on Dewey’s New York Times obituary. See also Karabell, pg. 77.

[16] To be fair, there is controversy around this testimony, as laid out in Ellen Poulson’s 2007 book The Case Against Lucky Luciano: New York’s Most Sensational Vice Trial.

[17] Karabell, pg. 146. See also pp. 147 and 154-57.

[18] However, given the United States constant reversion to the two-party system, it is likely that the end result is something very much like the two parties we have today: a left-of-center Democratic Party strongest in cities, college towns, the Pacific Coast, the mid-Atlantic and New England; and a right-of-center Republican Party strongest in rural areas and small towns, the South, the Plains Midwest and the upper Mountain West.

[19] Which actually was the Democratic presidential ticket in 1956. On a floor vote called by Stevenson, Kefauver edged a young Massachusetts Senator named John Fitzgerald Kennedy to win the vice-presidential nomination.

Doctor, validate thyself!

I recently wrote about my long-term fascination with American electoral geography, the way voting patterns are distributed across states, Congressional districts, counties and other areal units.

Pursuing this interest as an undergraduate political science major, I began to explore state-level presidential voting data. During my junior year, I created a large chart that ranked how states had voted in a series of recent presidential elections, from most to least Democratic, concluding with the 1984 presidential election (then the most recent one).

And I noticed that while Ronald Reagan, the incumbent Republican president, had absolutely walloped Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984, winning the popular vote by 18.2 percentage points (58.8-40.6%) and the Electoral College vote 525-13 (Mondale won only his home state of Minnesota [49.7-49.5%] and the District of Columbia [DC]), there were a few states Mondale lost by a much smaller margin than 18.2 percentage points: Massachusetts (-2.8 percentage points), Rhode Island (-3.6), Maryland (-5.5), Iowa (-7.4), Pennsylvania (-7.4), New York (-8.0) and Wisconsin (-9.2).

As usual, all presidential data are from Dave Leip’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.

Consider Pennsylvania, the state in which I was born. While the nation was voting for Reagan by 18.2 percentage points, Pennsylvania was voting for Reagan by “only” 7.4 percentage points (53.3-46.0%), a difference of 10.8 percentage points.

That is, Pennsylvania in 1984 was 10.8 percentage points MORE Democratic than the nation as a whole. Had Mondale lost by “only” 10 percentage points, he would (theoretically) have won Pennsylvania 25 electoral votes (EV), as well as those of Iowa (8), Maryland (10), Rhode Island (4) and Massachusetts (13)—an additional 60 EV.

And had Mondale lost by “only” 7.7 percentage points—as Democrat Michael Dukakis would to Republican George H. W. Bush in 1988—he would also have theoretically won the combined 53 EV of New York (36), Wisconsin (11) and West Virginia (6), boosting his total to 126 EV (better, but still 144 EV shy of the 270 needed to win the White House).

Still, that is close to the 112 EV Dukakis won in 1988.[1] As the purple-inked states on this beautiful hand-drawn map[2] show, Dukakis lost seven states (Illinois, Pennsylvania, Maryland, California, Vermont, Missouri, New Mexico) totaling 125 EV by smaller margins (2.1-5.0 percentage points; mean=3.3) than he did nationally. Had Dukakis lost the election by just 2.7 points, he would theoretically have won 237 EV, only 33 shy of the necessary 270.

1988 Presidential map

The conclusion I drew (no pun intended) was that the “relative partisan margin” of a state—how much more or less Democratic it was than the nation as a whole in a given election—was a useful way to think about electoral geography. Of course, other elections in the state (governor, United States Senate, United States House) are of interest as well, as Paul T. David observed in his Party Strength in the United States, 1872-1970; at one point, I even examined the partisan composition of state legislatures.

Good times.

Two decades later, despite having walked away from a doctoral program in political science, I was still interested in these questions, and I began to collect state-level presidential data again.

My primary goal was to get a sense of how EV’s would be distributed between the parties in the next presidential election (either 2008 or 2012) given a series of hypothetical national popular votes (e.g., Democrat wins nationally by 3 percentage points), essentially updating the exercises with 1984 and 1988 presidential election data I summarized earlier. I was particularly interested in whether the Democratic or the Republican presidential nominee would win more EV if the national vote were divided evenly between the two-major parties.

Having gathered these data, I set about constructing a measure of the relative partisanship of a state, intending to combine data from multiple elections to smooth out any idiosyncratic results.

For example, Democratic presidential nominees won Michigan by an average of 7.4 percentage points from 1992 through 2004, making the state an average 4.3 percentage points more Democratic than the nation. Democrat Barack Obama then won the Wolverine State by 16.4 percentage points in 2008 (9.2 percentage points better than he did nationally). In 2012 and 2016, meanwhile, the average margin in Michigan (with Republican Donald Trump winning by 0.2 percentage points in 2016) dropped to just 4.6 percentage points (only 1.6 percentage points more Democratic than the nation). A reasonable explanation (though not a conclusive one) for the Democratic spike in 2008 is the disproportionate impact of the 2007-08 recession on the automobile industry in Michigan, as voters took out their frustrations with term-limited President George W. Bush on 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

The questions then became

  1. How many years do I use?
  2. How, if at all, do I “weight” these elections?

My initial instinct was to use five years of data, with a weighting scheme of 1-2-3-4-5, meaning the least recent of the relative Democratic margins (D%-R% of total state vote minus D%-R% of total national vote) would be weighted 1/15 while the most recent one would be weighted 5/15, or 1/3.

This became my first “weighted relative Democratic margin” (W-RDM).

However, as I was also interested in assessing changes in relative state-level partisanship over time, using five elections meant that, prior to 2016, I only had four W-RDM values for a state—giving me only three election-to-election changes in W-RDM to examine[3].

I finally settled on three years in what I call my 3W-RDM[4] in order to minimize the fact that presidential and vice-presidential nominees tend to fare better, relative to their overall performance, in their home states. It is rare for one person to be on at least three consecutive presidential tickets (only two, George H W Bush, 1984-1992 and Gore, 1992-2000, of 21 total unique presidential and vice-presidential nominees, 1984-2012).

And that is the measure I have utilized in a series of posts (here, here, here; I do not specifically use 3W-RDM here, but the logic is the same).

As an example, here is how Nevada voted for president in 2004, 2008 and 2012:

             Year                State D% – R%                      National D% – R%              RDM

             2004                           -2.4                                               -2.5                         D+0.1

             2008                           12.5                                               7.3                         D+5.2

             2012                           6.7                                                 3.9                         D+2.8

The weighted average of the RDM values is (0.1 + 2*5.2 + 3*2.8)/6 = D+3.2. This was Nevada’s 3W-RDM prior to the 2016 election, so one would have expected that year’s Democratic nominee to do 3.2 percentage points better in Nevada than nationwide.

The 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, won the national popular vote by 2.1 percentage points. So, my best estimate (based upon Nevada’s recent voting history) was that Clinton would win Nevada by 5.3 percentage points (2.1+3.2). This estimate was too optimistic, however, as she won Nevada by 2.4 percentage points, 2.9 percentage points lower than expected.

**********

Just bear with me while I briefly describe two other highly reputable approaches to calculating the relative partisan margin of a state (or other areal unit).

The Cook Political Report, the “independent, non-partisan newsletter that analyzes elections and campaigns for the US House of Representatives, US Senate, Governors and President as well as American political trends” has been essential reading for any serious student of American politics since its founding in 1984 by Charlie Cook, formerly “a staffer on Capitol Hill, a campaign consultant, a pollster, and a staff member for a political action committee.”

In 1997, Cook began to calculate the Partisan Voting Index (PVI) as a way to measure “how each [state or Congressional] district performs at the presidential level compared to the nation as a whole.”

The Cook PVI is simply the difference (state minus nation) between two averages:

  1. The average Democratic share of the state-level two-party vote in the previous two presidential elections
  2. The average Democratic share of the national two-party vote in the previous two presidential elections.

In 2008, Obama and McCain won 52.9% and 45.6%, of the national popular vote, respectively, splitting 98.5% of the total vote. Looking only at this two-party vote, Obama received 52.9/98.5 = 53.7% and McCain received 45.6/98.5=46.3%, meaning Obama beat McCain nationally by 7.4 percentage points in the two-party vote.

A similar calculation for 2012 (Obama 51.0%, Republican Mitt Romney 47.1%) shows that Obama beat Romney nationally in the two-party vote by 3.9 percentage points.

The average of 7.4 and 3.9 is 5.7.

In Nevada, meanwhile, overall Obama beat McCain 55.1-42.6%, and he beat Romney 52.4-45.7%; in the two-party vote, Obama won by margins of 12.8 (56.4-43.6%) and 6.8 (53.4-46.6%) percentage points.

The average of 12.8 and 6.8 is 9.8.

Subtracting 5.7 from 9.8 gives you 4.1, meaning that the PVI for Nevada going into 2016 was D+4.1, only a little more Democratic (D+3.2) than the 3W-RDM suggested.

The other approach is the “partisan lean” calculated by the data journalism website fivethirtyeight.com, a favorite of this blog.

It is even more straightforward than Cook PVI:

(RDM 2nd-most recent presidential + 3*RDM most recent presidential election)/4

Using Nevada again, we have already seen that in 2008 and 2012, Nevada voted 5.2 and 2.8 percentage points more Democratic than the nation; the 538 partisan lean (PL) formula gives you (5.2 +3*2.8)/4 = (5.2+8.4)/4=13.6/4=3.4.

Thus, Nevada’s 538 PL going into 2016 was D+3.4, broadly similar to the Cook PVI of D+4.1 and the 3W-RDM of D+3.2, and the projected Nevada vote based on the 538 PL was D+5.5.

**********

In this post, I assessed the validity of one of my baseball player performance metrics—the Index of Offensive Ability—by comparing it to two other commonly-used statistics, OPS+ and WAR. Here is how I described validity in that post:

Validity is the extent to which an index/measure/score actually measures what it is designed to measure, or “underlying construct”. While now considered a unitary concept, historically, there were three broad approaches to “assessing” validity: content, construct and criterion.

 Content validity is the extent to which an index/measure/score includes the appropriate set of components (not too many, not too few) to capture the underlying construct (say, a state’s partisan “lean”). Construct validity is how strongly your index/measure/score relates to other indices/measures/scores of the same underlying construct, including a priori expectations of what values should be (sometimes called face validity). Criterion validity considers how well outcomes “predicted” by the index/measure/score align with the actual outcomes.

As you have probably guessed by now, I will spend the rest of this post comparing my 3W-RDM to the Cook PVI and the 538 PL.

But first, I offer a mea culpa.

Before my “Democratic blue wall thesis” post in February 2017, I had used the 3W-RDM (which did not even have a name until then) only for my own edification and amusement. That, however, does not excuse me for not even attempting to validate this measure until now. Moreover, I should not have started writing data-driven posts using the 3W-RDM—implicitly asserting its validity without empirical evidence—until I had performed that validation.

I now present that empirical validation evidence.

Content validity: All three measures not only use presidential election voting data, but they also compare state and national margins in some way. This makes sense because presidential elections feature one party nominee advocating (theoretically) the same platform in every state. By comparison, other statewide elections (governor, Senate) feature candidates who share a party label yet may have very different policy stances. While this may be less true now for Senate races, which are becoming more nationalized, there is still a vast difference between Democratic Senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and between Republican governors like Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Sam Brownback of Kansas.

Thus, despite differences in number of elections utilized, weighting and margin calculation, all three measures arguably have high content validity.

Construct validity. A correlation coefficient (“r”) is a number between -1.00 and +1.00 indicating how two variables co-relate to each other in a linear way[5]. If every time one variable increases, the other variable increases, that would be r= +1.00, and if every time one variable increases, the other variable decreases, that would be r=-1.00. R=0.00 means there is no linear association between the two variables.

I calculated the projected presidential election margin (D% total vote – R% total vote) in each state (plus DC) in every presidential election from 1996 through 2016 by adding each state’s partisan lean score before that election to the actual national popular vote margin. In other words, I repeated the example of Nevada (projected 2016 presidential vote: Cook PVI=D+6.2, 538 PL=D+5.5, 3W-RDM=D+5.2) for all 306 state-level presidential election margins.

Here are the average correlations (PVI vs. PL, PVI vs. 3W-RDM, PL vs. 3W-RDM) between the three sets of projected margins in each election year:

1996    +0.995

2000    +0.994

2004    +0.997

2008    +0.998

2012    +0.997

2016    +0.999

Clearly, each partisan lean measure is nearly identically capturing the underlying partisan distribution of states from most to least Democratic, indicating that each measure has very high construct validity.

Criterion validity. Building upon the analysis of construct validity, the simplest way to assess criterion validity is to compare the projected presidential election margin in each state in each year to the actual margins.

Table 1 does this for each state in 2016. A negative difference means the state voted less Democratic than expected, and a positive difference means the state voted more Democratic than expected. States are sorted from most “less Democratic” to most “more Democratic.”

Table 1: Differences Between Projected and Actual State-Level Presidential Vote Margin (Democratic % – Republican %), 2016

State Cook PVI 538 PL 3W-RDM Mean
West Virginia -17.8% -15.8% -20.0% -17.8%
North Dakota -17.6% -16.2% -16.6% -16.8%
Iowa -13.7% -13.5% -13.5% -13.6%
South Dakota -12.7% -11.6% -12.5% -12.3%
Maine -10.2% -10.2% -10.1% -10.2%
Missouri -10.1% -8.8% -10.7% -9.9%
Indiana -10.8% -9.0% -9.0% -9.6%
Michigan -9.8% -8.8% -9.1% -9.3%
Rhode Island -9.1% -9.4% -9.1% -9.2%
Ohio -8.4% -8.8% -8.9% -8.7%
Montana -8.4% -6.8% -7.4% -7.5%
Wisconsin -7.8% -6.8% -7.1% -7.2%
Hawaii -9.0% -8.6% -3.9% -7.1%
Kentucky -6.5% -6.1% -7.9% -6.9%
Vermont -7.2% -6.9% -5.2% -6.4%
Delaware -7.2% -6.3% -5.8% -6.4%
Wyoming -5.0% -5.0% -6.7% -5.6%
Tennessee -4.5% -4.3% -6.6% -5.1%
Pennsylvania -5.1% -4.7% -5.4% -5.1%
Minnesota -4.1% -4.2% -4.5% -4.3%
New Hampshire -3.8% -3.6% -4.0% -3.8%
Nevada -3.8% -3.1% -2.8% -3.3%
Alabama -2.0% -3.1% -3.3% -2.8%
Mississippi -1.8% -3.3% -2.6% -2.5%
Connecticut -2.9% -2.3% -2.4% -2.5%
Arkansas -1.0% -1.6% -5.0% -2.5%
Nebraska -2.8% -2.4% -1.8% -2.3%
New York -1.8% -2.7% -1.8% -2.1%
South Carolina -0.9% -1.6% -1.4% -1.3%
Oklahoma -0.4% -0.8% -2.1% -1.1%
New Mexico -1.2% -0.6% 0.1% -0.5%
Illinois -0.9% 0.6% 0.2% 0.0%
Florida 0.5% 0.1% 0.1% 0.2%
New Jersey 0.7% -0.6% 0.7% 0.3%
Oregon -0.1% 0.4% 0.6% 0.3%
Louisiana 2.1% 0.5% -0.6% 0.7%
North Carolina 0.8% 0.4% 1.2% 0.8%
Idaho 1.2% 0.9% 0.7% 1.0%
Colorado 1.2% 1.3% 1.9% 1.4%
Kansas 1.8% 2.1% 1.4% 1.8%
Washington 2.9% 3.0% 3.3% 3.1%
Maryland 3.7% 3.1% 4.6% 3.8%
Virginia 3.7% 3.5% 4.5% 3.9%
DC 4.3% 5.2% 4.8% 4.8%
Georgia 5.1% 4.7% 5.1% 5.0%
Massachusetts 5.8% 6.0% 4.7% 5.5%
Alaska 7.2% 3.8% 5.6% 5.5%
Arizona 9.0% 8.0% 7.4% 8.1%
Texas 8.5% 8.4% 8.5% 8.5%
California 9.4% 9.3% 10.6% 9.8%
Utah 24.8% 27.6% 24.8% 25.7%
Mean -2.3% -2.1% -2.3% -2.2%

On average, the measures overestimated Clinton’s performance by a relatively low 2.2 percentage points, with no meaningful difference across measures. Five states—West Virginia, North Dakota, Iowa, South Dakota and Maine—were at least 10 percentage points less Democratic than projected using all three measures; Clinton still won Maine, but by “only” 3.0 percentage points. Four states—Utah, California, Texas and Arizona—were at least seven percentage points more Democratic than projected using all three measures; Clinton won only California of this group, though there are signs that Texas and, especially, Arizona are becoming more Democratic. The massive disparity in Utah  results from the presence of unaffiliated presidential candidate Evan McMullin, a Utah native, on the ballot; his 21.3% of the vote cut deeply into Trump’s vote, so the latter “only” won the state by 17.9 percentage points.

 As Table 2 shows, the performance of these measures—using the average of the actual difference in margins—was the worst since 2000, when they also overestimated Democratic performance by an average of 2.2 percentage points. On average, across all six presidential elections, these measures overestimated Democratic performance by just 0.9 percentage points, a solid performance.

Table 2: Average Difference Between Projected and Actual State-Level Presidential Vote Margin (Democratic % – Republican %), 1996-2016

Year Cook PVI 538 PL 3W-RDM Mean
1996 -0.7% -1.0% -0.9% -0.9%
2000 -2.0% -2.2% -2.5% -2.2%
2004 0.1% 0.4% -0.3% 0.1%
2008 0.7% 0.5% 0.4% 0.5%
2012 -0.7% -0.8% -0.6% -0.7%
2016 -2.3% -2.1% -2.3% -2.2%
Mean -0.8% -0.9% -1.0% -0.9%

These values can be deceptive, however. Consider the performance of the 3W-RDM in 2016. It overestimated Clinton’s margin in Montana by 7.4 percentage points, and it underestimated her margin in Arizona by an identical 7.4 percentage points. In both states the difference was 7.4 percentage points, but averaging the two (0.0 percentage points) would suggest that the 3W-RDM was spot on.

In fact, the three measures missed the actual presidential election margin by at least five percentage points in 26 states.

Table 3 resolves this problem by displaying the average absolute value of the difference between the projected and actual presidential election margins.

Table 3: Average of Absolute Value of Differences Between Projected and Actual State-Level Presidential Vote Margin (Democratic % – Republican %), 1996-2016

Year Cook PVI 538 PL 3W-RDM Mean
1996 5.4% 5.1% 5.6% 5.4%
2000 5.5% 5.9% 6.8% 6.1%
2004 3.9% 3.6% 4.2% 3.9%
2008 6.3% 5.7% 6.2% 6.1%
2012 3.3% 3.2% 3.5% 3.3%
2016 5.9% 5.6% 5.9% 5.8%
Mean 5.0% 4.8% 5.4% 5.1%

On average, the projected and actual presidential election margins differed by 5.1 percentage points in either direction. The 3W-RDM, which differed by an average of 5.4 percentage points, fared slightly worse than the Cook PVI and 538 PL. The best years for these measures were two re-election years, 2004 (3.9 percentage points) and 2012 (3.3), and the worst years were the open seat elections of 2000, 2008 (both 6.1) and 2016 (5.8). The overall worst performance was the 3W-RDM in 2000 (6.8), while the overall best performance was the 538 PL in 2012 (3.2).

I performed identical analyses to those summarized in Tables 2 and 3 using two alternate versions of the 3W-RDM, one which used a 1-3-5 weighting scheme and one which weighted all three years equally. The results were nearly identical to those shown here (though the non-weighted 3W-RDM tended to perform worse on the absolute value differences), suggesting that if the 3W-RDM is slightly less “predictive” than the other two measures, it is not due to the weighting scheme but (most likely) to the inclusion of data from a third election year.

Finally, I counted how many—and which—states were “called” incorrectly by each measure in each presidential election.

Table 4: “Mis-called” States, 1996-2016

Year Cook PVI* 538 PL 3W-RDM Average
1996 9

AZ, CO, FL, MT, NV, NH, NC, SD, TX

8

AZ, CO, FL, GA, MT, NC, SD, TX

9

AZ, CO, FL, GA MT, NH, NC, SD, TX

8.7
2000 5

AR, CT, LA, MO, WV

6

AR, CT, LA, MO, NH, WV

5

AR, CT, LA, MO, WV

5.3
2004 4

NH, OR, PA, WI

3

NH, OR, WI

3

NH, OR, WI

3.3
2008 4

AR, IN, MO, NC

4

AR, IN, MO, NC

7

AR,AZ, IN, MO, NC, VA, WV

5.0
2012 0 1

FL

0 0.3
2016 5

IA, MI, OH, PA, WI

5

IA, MI, OH, PA, WI

5

IA, MI, OH, PA, WI

5.0
Mean 4.3 4.5 4.8 4.5

        *States in boldface were “predicted” Democratic wins, and states in italics were

         “predicted” Republican wins.

On average, four or five (out of 51) states are “mis-called” in a given presidential election. Again, the 3W-RDM fared slightly worse (4.8) than average (4.5). Of the 83 total misses (out of 918 possibilities), 52 (62.7%) were states that were projected Democratic wins that were actually won by the Republican nominee.

The presidential election of 1996, when Democrat Bill Clinton cruised to an easy reelection, had the most mis-called states, eight or nine; seven states (Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, Texas) were mis-called by all three measures. By contrast, only one state was mis-called in 2012, Florida by the 538 PL: it projected Obama would lose Florida by 0.1 percentage points when he in fact won it by 0.9 percentage points.

Despite these differences, I would argue that all three measures have high criterion validity, as each does a reasonably good job of “projecting” the actual presidential election margin in a given state and year. My 3W-RDM performed only slightly worse than the other two measures, so I will stick with it for now.

**********

One final note about the utility of partisan lean measures.

The Alabama special Senate election between Republican Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones to be held on December 12, 2017 is drawing national attention for two reasons. One, a win by Jones would reduce the Republican Senate majority to 51-49. Two, Moore has been dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct with minors (as well as having been removed twice as Alabama’s Chief Justice for defying federal court orders).

The public polls of this election, which once showed a Moore lead of ~11 percentage points, have tightened considerably since the allegations first appeared on November 9, 2017. As of now, depending on how you aggregate and weight these polls, Moore is somewhere between four percentage points ahead and one percentage points ahead; my best estimate is that Moore is ahead 1.7 percentage points.

But consider this. Following the 2016 presidential election, the average partisan lean for Alabama (using all three measures) is D-28.7. As of this writing, the best estimate of how Democrats will fare in the 2018 Congressional elections is that they are ahead by 7.8 percentage points.

Putting these two values together implies that a generic Republican Senate candidate should be leading a generic Democratic Senate candidate by 20.9 percentage points (28.7 minus 7.8): this should not even be a close contest.

However, the polls suggest that Jones is performing somewhere between 16.9 and 21.9 percentage points better than a generic Democrat—that is a stunning difference, and one that may bode very well for Democrats in 2018.

Until next time…

[1] Technically, he only won 111, as one Democratic elector in Washington (state) cast his presidential vote for Lloyd Bentsen, the 1988 Democratic nominee for vice president, and cast his vice presidential vote for Dukakis.

[2] I freely confess to being the artist. This kid-friendly (fine, I had just turned 22) exhortation to vote must have been in the Comics section of the Washington Post (I was living in DC at the time) the Sunday before the 1988 elections.

[3] My data start in 1984, so I would only have 5W-RDM for 1984-2000, 1988-2004, 1992-2008, 1996-2012 and 2000-2016.

[4] I have experimented with adding a weighted linear trend to the 3W-RDM. The logic is that if I want to use the previous three election margins in a state to “forecast” the state margin in the next election, I should account for the fact that, over time, some states are growing relatively more Democratic (e.g., Nevada has become 11.7 percentage points more Democratic relative to the nation since 1984-1992) or less Democratic (e.g., West Virginia, 44.7 percentage points). Adding a weighted average of all previous election-to-election changes in RDM to a 3W-RDM would, theoretically, account for any increased partisanship over the ensuing four years. For the analyses below, however, there was very little difference between the 3W-RDM and the 3W-RDM+weighted linear trend, so I exclude it.

[5] More formally r = covariance(x,y) divided by SD(x) * SD(y).

The 2016 U.S. presidential election viewed through one statistic

The 2016 United States (U.S.) presidential election is one of those elections (1948, 1960, 1968 and 2000 also come to mind) people will be re-hashing as long as the U.S. continues to HAVE presidential elections. I have already shared data-driven thoughts on the 2016 U.S. presidential election here, here, here, here, here and here.

Grounding my thoughts about this election is the following sequence of data points (drawn from Dave Leip’s invaluable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections):

  • Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won 2,868,518 more votes OVERALL than Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (48.0% vs. 45.9%).
  • Trump won the election because he won more Electoral College votes (EV; 306 to 232[1])
  • Trump won more EV because he won narrow victories in three states:
    • Pennsylvania (20 EV): 44,292 votes, or 0.72%
    • Wisconsin (10 EV): 22,748, or 0.76%
    • Michigan (16 EV): 10,794, or 0.22%
  • Trump won because of just 77,744 votes in three closely-fought states, or 0.057% of the 137,125,484 votes cast in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

I want to shout these numbers whenever political pundits or elected officials and their allies fret about “how Democrats can ever win back voters in 2018 or 2020.”

To all those folks I say, Chill! The 2016 U.S. presidential election was VERY close, not to mention that Democrats also netted two U.S. Senate seats and six U.S. House of Representatives seats that year.

And while it is absolutely true that, relative to the extraordinarily Democratic years of 2006 and 2008, Democrats have been losing ground badly at the state level (with 2017 election results suggesting a slow-moving reversal), that is not the focus of this post.

Instead, I want to focus on the single statistic that strikes me as the key to understanding the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

**********

First, however, just bear with me while I briefly address “electoral legitimacy” arguments made about that election.

These basically fall into two groups:

  1. Russian cyberattacks amplified through American social and traditional media
  2. Voter suppression efforts

The goal of the Russian cyberattacks (including, but not limited to, hacking Democratic National Committee e-mails and releasing them through WikiLeaks; purchasing thousands of ads on social media platforms; coordinating “trolling” on those same social media platforms by Russian nationals) appears to have been to sow discord in the American electorate; punish 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton; and, PERHAPS, promote the candidacy of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (with or without “collusion” on their part).

That such meddling did occur is widely accepted, even if the efficacy of that meddling is debatable.

But the next question to be asked is this: as a result of this interference, how many voters who would otherwise have voted for Clinton did not vote for her, regardless of whether they voted for somebody else or simply did not cast a presidential vote at all?

This counterfactual may not be possible to assess given the voting data at our disposal and the multitude of reasons we choose one candidate over another.

Well, besides simple partisanship that is (data source found by clicking on election year):

Table 1: Percentage of Self-Identified Partisans Who Voted For Presidential Candidate of Their Party, 2000-2016

Election % Democrats

voting Democratic

% Republicans voting Republican Margin among Independents
2016 89%

(36% of electorate)

88%

(33%)

+4% Republican

(31%)

2012 92%

(38%)

93%

(32%)

+5% Republican

(29%)

2008 89%

(39%)

90%

(32%)

+8% Democratic

(29%)

2004 89%

(37%)

93%

(37%)

+1% Democratic

(26%)

2000 87%

(39%)

91%

(35%)

+2% Republican

(26%)

Mean 89%

(38%)

91%

(34%)

Margin=4%

(28%)

In the previous five presidential elections, 87-92% of self-identified Democrats voted for the Democratic nominee, and 88-93% of self-identified Republicans voted for the Republican nominee. Self-identified Independents (whose share of the electorate seems to be increasing over time), most of whom usually cast their ballots for the same party over time, divided their votes fairly evenly between the Democratic and Republican nominees (while also being more likely to choose a third-party option[2]) over these same elections.

American politics is highly polarized, and the vast majority of voters simply vote for the nominee with the same party identification as them, so the pool of voters who would have been swayed by Russian interference was already very small.

Again, that is not to say the meddling did not occur, that it was not an attack on our sovereign democracy, and that no votes were changed from “Clinton” to either “not Clinton” or a non-vote. I just think there is a far less “conspiratorial” way to understand the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

As for voter suppression efforts like restrictive voter ID laws, fewer polling places and shorter/no early voting periods, there is some evidence that this occurred in states highly relevant to the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, including Wisconsin and North Carolina.

Yes, I wrote “North Carolina.”

While the “path of least resistance” for Clinton would have been to flip just under 78,000 votes in three “Rust Belt” states, an alternate path would have been to flip just 285,826 votes (0.21%) in two southeastern states: Florida (Clinton -112,911, or 1.2%) and North Carolina (Clinton –172,915, or 3.6%). Or to flip 157,203 votes (0.11%) in Florida and Pennsylvania…you get the idea.

But, even IF Wisconsin and North Carolina had voted for Clinton if voter suppression had not existed (a difficult counterfactual to prove), that would only have garnered Clinton 25 additional EV, increasing her total to 257, 13 shy of the 270 required for victory. She would still have needed to win one of Michigan, Pennsylvania or Florida, states where there have been no claims of voter suppression of which I am aware.

The point is, while Russian interference and voter suppression certainly happened, demonstrating that they prevented enough votes for Clinton in the right combination of states to deny her an Electoral College victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is extremely difficult. The simple fact that each was attempted is pernicious enough.

**********

What makes the 2016 U.S. presidential election stand out from the pack is how disliked both major party nominees were.

totalfavunfavehorizontalAccording to the exit polls, Clinton was viewed favorably by 43%, and unfavorably by 55%, of the 2016 presidential electorate; the corresponding values for Trump were 38% and 60%, respectively. These line up nicely with the RealClearPolitics (RCP) averages going into Election Day (November 8, 2016): Clinton 42%/54%, Trump 38%/58%.[3].

On average, 95% of those with a favorable view of a candidate voted FOR that candidate. Among voters with an unfavorable view of Clinton, 81% voted for Trump, and among voters with an unfavorable view of Trump, 77% voted for Clinton.

Here is the kicker, however:

An unusually high 18%[4] of the electorate had an unfavorable view of both Clinton AND Trump. This pivotal portion of the electorate gave 47% of their votes to Trump, 30% to Clinton and 23% to neither candidate.

That’s right, Trump won by 17% percentage points nationwide among voters who disliked BOTH major-party candidates.

And the support for Trump among this portion of the electorate was much stronger in the six states Clinton lost by less than four percentage points (total EV=99):

Table 2: Favorability Ratings for Clinton and Trump in Six Key States, 2016

State EV Trump Margin Clinton Trump Both Unfavorable Margin among

Both Unfavorable

MI 16 +0.2% 42/56 39/59 20% Trump +21%
PA 20 +0.7% 42/57 42/56 17% Trump +25%
WI 10 +0.8% 42/56 35/64 22% Trump +37%
FL 27 +1.2% 45/53 41/57 14% Trump +37%
AZ 11 +3.5% 41/57 41/57 18% Trump +17%
NC 15 +3.6% 43/56 41/58 16% Trump +36%
Mean 16 +1.7% 43/56 40/59 18% Trump +29%

On average, 18% of the voters in these six states had an unfavorable view of both Clinton and Trump, with Clinton earning 27% of their votes (3 percentage points lower than nationwide) and Trump earning 56% of their votes (9 percentage points higher than nationwide). Third-party candidates did worse (18%), on average, than nationwide (23%) with this group in these six states; the exception is Arizona (29%), neighbor to the west of 2016 Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson’s home state of New Mexico[5].

In fact, Trump received an astonishing 60% of the “pox on both your houses” votes in Wisconsin, 61% in Florida and 62% in North Carolina.

I can find no historical data to which to compare these numbers, so I do not know what a typical vote distribution among this segment of the electorate is. Still, it is important to keep in mind that the 2016 U.S. presidential election took place after eight years with one party (Democrats) occupying the White House and no incumbent running. Voters often look to change White House control in these elections: prior to 2016, of the six such elections starting with 1960, the party not occupying the White House had won five of them (1960, 1968, 1976, 2000, 2008). The exception was 1988, when Republican nominee George H. W. Bush beat Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis by 6.8 percentage points and 315 EV.

These elections also tend to be very close, with the party not occupying the White House winning the two-party vote by an average of just 0.3 percentage points and 22 EV (excluding 1988, these values are 1.9 percentage points and 90 EV)[6].

According to the RCP average, voters on Election Day 2016 felt the country was going in the wrong direction by a margin of 61-31%. Combine this with an eight-year/no-incumbent election and Clinton (or any Democratic presidential nominee) should always have been seen as a slight underdog. The historic unpopularity of Trump (net -21 percentage points) may have led observers to conclude that this election would be different, but they did not take into account Clinton’s only-marginally-better favorability rating (-13 percentage points).

Still, it is worth considering two alternate scenarios in the six states listed in Table 2:

  1. The voters disliking both Clinton and Trump give the same support to “other” candidates, but split the two-party votes EVENLY between Clinton and Trump.
  2. The distribution of the “pox on both houses” vote in these six states matches the nation (30% Clinton, 47% Trump, 23% Other)

Table 3 lists how each state would have voted under both scenarios, with the state winner in bold italics.

Table 3: Statewide Vote Distributions in Six States, 2016, Under Three Methods of Splitting Votes of Clinton-Trump Disapprovers

State Actual 2016 results 2-party vote split even Votes split 30-47-23
Clinton Trump Clinton Trump Clinton Trump
MI 47.0% 47.2% 49.1% 45.1% 47.2% 46.6%
PA 47.5% 48.2% 49.6% 46.0% 47.3% 46.6%
WI 46.5% 47.2% 50.5% 43.1% 48.0% 44.4%
FL 47.4% 48.6% 50.0% 46.0% 48.2% 46.6%
AZ 44.6% 48.1% 46.1% 46.5% 45.1% 48.6%
NC 46.2% 49.8% 49.1% 46.9% 46.8% 47.4%

Under both scenarios, Clinton would not only have won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (giving her 278 EV, 8 more than necessary), she also would have won Florida’s 27 EV, for a total of 305 EV. North Carolina’s 15 EV would also have gone to Clinton if the voters who disapproved of her and Trump had split their two-party votes evenly. Arizona, because of its relatively high 7.3% of the vote for neither Clinton nor Trump, would still have gone to Trump under both scenarios.

In other words, the 2016 U.S. presidential was an eight-year/non-incumbent election featuring two historically unpopular candidates. Neither major party candidate had a net positive favorable rating, resulting in an unusually high 18% of the electorate disliking both. Given that this was a change election (net -31% felt country on wrong track), it is not surprising in retrospect that this key bloc of voters chose the Republican nominee (the nominee of the party not occupying the White House), propelling him to the White House.

Still, had the Democratic presidential nominee been viewed even a little more favorably, she might easily have won four additional states with a combined 73 EV, thus winning the White House.

And here is where, if one were to squint hard enough, one could construct an argument that looked something like this:

There is evidence from the RCP averages that Clinton’s net favorability—which was roughly even in June 2015, just as the 2016 U.S. presidential election was beginning—steadily worsened after that, landing at 13 percentage points unfavorable by November 2016. Trump’s net unfavorability, meanwhile, hardly changed over this same period. This could be seen as evidence that Russian interference had the effect of slowly increasing her net unfavorability, to the point where voters nearly disapproved equally of both candidates (then opted for the nominee of the party not occupying the White House).

While this is…plausible, there is one profound flaw (other than the simple fact of NOT explaining why voters who disapproved of both Clinton and Trump then voted heavily for Trump). On January 23, 2013, Clinton was viewed favorably by 63% of American voters and unfavorably by 28%, for a net favorability of 35 percentage points. She had just stepped down from her perch as a popular Secretary of State and was publicly undecided about her future in electoral politics. Still, from that day forward, her net favorability declined steadily and inexorably to nearly even in the spring and summer of 2015.

That is, Clinton was becoming more unpopular long before ANY Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Moreover, her net unfavorability actually hit its nadir (18% net unfavorable) in late May 2016. After that, while the percentage disapproving of Clinton changed little, the percentage approving of her steadily increased.

To me, the bottom line is this:

Democrats are best served understanding that 2016 was a change election featuring two historically unpopular major party nominees. Under those circumstances, an unpopular nominee of the party not occupying the White House is almost certain to beat an unpopular nominee of the party occupying the White House. Period.

Focusing on Russian interference and/or voter suppression as the “causes” of Clinton’s defeat is a wild goose chase. Both are antithetical to a well-functioning, mature democracy and need to be investigated and prevented to the maximum extent, but they also distract from the fact that 46% of the American electorate were predisposed to accept Trump’s message.

Democrats should also realize that Clinton actually defied recent presidential election history by winning the popular vote by just over two percentage points, and that there are strong reasons for optimism in 2018 and 2020 given their growing strength with white college-educated voters, especially women.

In other words, Chill!

Until next time…

[1] Technically, 304-227, as seven Electors voted for other candidates.

[2] In 2016, for example, 12% of self-identified Independents voted for a non-major-party candidate, as opposed to just  3% of self-identified Democrats and 4% of self-identified Republicans.

[3] Given that nearly every poll included in the final RCP averages was of “likely voters,” pollsters did a very good job modeling the actual electorate. This is also indirect evidence that voter suppression did not, in fact, keep an electorally-significant number of Democratic voters from the polls: the projected electorate looked like the actual electorate.

[4] I base this assertion on 1) the fact that voting preferences of voters with an unfavorable view of both major-party candidates had not been assessed prior to 2016 and 2) the historic unpopularity of Clinton and Trump.

[5] Excluding Arizona yields a Clinton 27%, Trump 58%, Other 16% split among the 18% of voters disliking both Clinton and Trump

[6] The fact that Clinton won the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points is even more remarkable in this context, while her 77 EV vote loss was about in line with expectations (22-90 EV loss).