A wicked early look at the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination

On March 11, 2019, the Democratic Party announced that its 2020 national convention will be held at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, WI. This is a reasonable choice, given that Wisconsin—which 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton lost by 0.8 percentage points—is one of the true swing states in presidential elections.

It also means the formal selection of the 2020 Democratic presidential and vice-presidential nominees will not take place for another 15 months (July 13-16, 2020). Nonetheless, nearly two dozen Democrats have either declared their intention to run for president in 2020—or are strongly leaning toward doing so.

Put another way, just since January 1, 2019, there have been…

  • 37 national polls (17 by Morning Consult alone)
  • 6 Iowa Caucuses polls
  • 5 New Hampshire Primary polls
  • 1 Nevada Caucuses poll
  • 3 South Carolina Primary polls
  • 1 poll each from the primaries in Alabama, California, Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Oregon

conducted of the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, for a total of 59 different polls in three months.

The 37 national polls themselves queried voters about 39 potential nominees; when you include candidates only included in state polls (Massachusetts Representative[1] Joseph P. Kennedy III and billionaire Tom Steyer in New Hampshire; Miramar, FL Mayor Wayne Messam in Alabama and Nevada), the number increases to 42. And not one of these 59 polls listed Ohio Representative Tim Ryan, who declared his presidential candidacy on April 4, 2019—bringing the total to 43.

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The point is, despite the Iowa Caucuses—the first contest to choose delegates to the 2020 Democratic National Convention—being nearly 10 months away (tentative date February 3, 2020)—it is not too early to begin to examine public polls assessing voters’ 2020 Democratic presidential nominee preference.

Thus, just as I did with public polls for governor and United States Senate (“Senate”) in 2018, I am collecting and aggregating 2020 Democratic nomination polls released publicly since January 1, 2019. The difference from 2018, though, is that rather than “project” who the 2020 Democratic nominee will be, I am simply taking snapshots of the relative ordering of candidates for that nomination.

Given that convention delegate selection occurs at the state level, I calculated a version of my “weighted-adjusted polling average” (WAPA) for each candidate, both nationally and within each state contest for which I have polling. I then calculated a single WAPA across all of these levels, which I explain below.

I calculated each candidate’s national/state-level WAPA this way:

First, I weighted the raw percentages for each candidate by

  1. The FiveThirtyEight.com pollster rating, converting their letter ratings to a numeric value (A+ = 4.3, A = 4.0, etc.). Thus, each weekly Morning Consult (B-) tracking poll is weighted 2.7/4.3 = 0.628.
  2. A ratio of two values: a) the number of days a poll’s midpoint[2] is since January 1, 2019 and b) the number of days between December 31, 2018 and the contest being assessed (state contest or July 13, 2020, the first day of the 2020 Democratic National Convention). Thus, the University of New Hampshire poll of 240 likely 2020 New Hampshire Primary voters conducted February 18-26, 2019 had a midpoint of February 22, 2019, which is 54 days before the primary. There are 407 days between December 31, 2018 and February 11, 2020, the likely date of the 2020 New Hampshire presidential primary. Dividing 54/407 gives this poll a weight of 0.133.

In essence, recent, higher quality polls count more in WAPA than older, lower quality polls. I also considered weighting each candidate poll percentage by the number of respondents. However, given that the 12 national Morning Consult tracking polls average 13,173 respondents, while the other 25 national polls average 558 respondents, that would give way too much weight to the former.

Second, to account for pollsters releasing multiple polls of the same contest (e.g., the 37 national polls noted earlier were conducted by just 14 unique pollsters[3]), I averaged two versions of the candidate polling average detailed in the first step:

  1. Treating each poll as a statistically-independent event.
  2. Calculating aggregate averages for each pollster then aggregating those.

To complete these steps, I needed to make two decisions regarding each poll.

  1. I assigned a value of 0% to any candidate not listed in a poll who was included in at least one other poll. I realize this may introduce some slight mathematical bias[4], but as FiveThirtyEight.com’s Nathaniel Rakich wrote, “The good news is that, in most polls, the candidates who are rotated in or out are polling poorly, so it doesn’t make a huge difference whether they’re included or excluded.”
  2. If a pollster released two versions of a poll on the same day—with and without one candidate (usually former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. or Hillary Clinton)—I used the more inclusive poll. While this could potentially introduce significant mathematical bias, this is (hopefully) mitigated by the infrequency of the practice; the bias will also drop considerably over time as the field of 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates becomes more set.

Having calculated 12 different candidate WAPA, the final step was to combine them into a single “national-and-state-weighted WAPA” (NSW-WAPA).

It is well-established that candidate performance in Iowa affects candidate performance in New Hampshire, in turn affecting candidate performance in every contest that follows; I still think this is the definitive work on the subject:

Bartels Presidential Primaries.JPG

Therefore, I weigh the earliest primaries and caucuses—Iowa, New Hampshire (February 11[5]), Nevada (February 22) and South Carolina (February 29)—higher than subsequent contests, which in turn I weigh higher than national polls:

  • Iowa, New Hampshire = 5
  • Nevada, South Carolina = 4
  • The weighted-adjusted average of subsequent state contests = 2
  • National polls = 1

The weighting formula to combine 12 WAPA into a single NSW-WAPA is thus:

(IA*5 + NH*5 + NV*4 + SC*4 + OtherStateAverage*2 +National)/21

Yes, the results from Iowa and New Hampshire will change the subsequent national and state polling, but in ways that are currently unknowable. This formula represents a compromise between underweighting the early contests on one hand and overcomplicating the formula on the other hand.

Also, I chose to use an average of the WAPA from the post-South-Carolina contests because, as of this writing, I only have a single poll from each of seven such contests. I may revisit this decision as more polls are conducted of 2020 Democratic presidential nomination preferences in these states.

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As of March 31, 2019, here is the relative position of 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates, regardless of announcement status.

Table 1: Weighted-adjusted polling averages for selected 2020 Democratic presidential nomination possibilities

Candidate Running? National Iowa NH NSW-WAPA
Biden ??? 29.9 26.6 24.5 28.5
Sanders Yes 20.6 18.5 23.5 20.8
Harris Yes 9.9 9.0 11.9 10.1
Warren Yes 6.5 8.4 8.4 8.2
O’Rourke Yes 7.2 5.1 5.0 6.2
Booker Yes 4.0 4.5 3.8 4.2
Klobuchar Yes 2.0 3.4 4.4 2.7
Buttigieg Yes 1.1 4.2 0.6 2.4
Gillibrand Yes 0.8 0.3 1.4 1.1
Gabbard Yes 0.5 0.4 0.3 0.9
Yang Yes 0.5 0.1 0.0 0.8
Castro Yes 1.0 0.9 0.2 0.6
Bloomberg No 1.3 0.0 1.5 0.4
Brown No 0.6 0.5 0.7 0.3
Delaney Yes 0.4 0.7 0.3 0.3
Hickenlooper Yes 0.7 0.3 0.0 0.2
Inslee Yes 0.4 0.6 0.0 0.2
H. Clinton No 1.6 0.0 0.0 0.09
Swalwell ??? 0.0 0.1 0.0 0.09
Bullock ??? 0.2 0.2 0.0 0.06
Bennet ??? 0.0 0.2 0.0 0.05
M. Obama No 0.7 0.0 0.0 0.03
J. Kennedy III No 0.0 0.0 0.1 0.03
McAuliffe ??? 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.02
Holder No 0.2 0.0 0.0 0.02
Kerry No 0.3 0.0 0.0 0.02
de Blasio ??? 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.01
Moulton ??? 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.007
Winfrey No 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.005
Abrams ??? 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.004
Williamson Yes 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.004
Steyer No 0.0 0.0 0.01 0.003
Cuomo No 0.02 0.0 0.0 0.001
Messam Yes 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
Ojeda No 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
Ryan Yes 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
7 Others No 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
DK/Other 9.1 16.0 13.3 11.7

There is a glorious absurdity to listing candidates averaging well under 1.0 percentage points, but 32 candidates garnered at least 1% support in one or more of the 59 polls assessed. However, given that one Democratic National Committee criterion for participating in the first 2020 Democratic presidential debate (hosted by NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo June 26-27, 2019[6]) is to register at 1% in at least three designated national polls released after January 1, 2019, even that low level of support matters.

The data in Table 1 suggest the following as of March 31, 2019:

  1. The leading candidate, Biden (28.5%), has not yet formally announced whether he will run for president in 2020.
  2. On average, more than half (50.7%) of poll respondents choose someone other than Biden or Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (20.8%) to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee.
  3. Competing for 3rd place is California Senator Kamala Harris (10.1%) and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (8.2%).
  4. The three candidates whose support in national polls is understated relative to Iowa and New Hampshire polls are Warren, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar (2.7%) and, especially, South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg (2.4%; 4.2% WAPA in Iowa). Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard (0.9%) is also buoyed by WAPA of 2.0% in Nevada and 1.4% in South Carolina.
  5. Despite ranking #5 overall, however, former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke (6.2%) currently does not poll as well in the early states as he does nationally.
  6. Rounding out the top 10 are New Jersey Senator Cory Booker (4.2%) and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (1.1%).
  7. Half of the current top 10 choices for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination are women—including four Senators!
  8. Just outside the top 10 are entrepreneur Andrew Yang (0.8%) and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Juan Cástro (0.6%).
  9. Other than Hillary Clinton (0.09%), the top-listed candidates who have declared they are NOT running for president in 2020 are former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (0.4%) and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown (0.3%).
  10. Both Bloomberg and Brown continue, on average, to poll just ahead of three other announced candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination: Maryland Representative John Delaney (0.3%), Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (0.2%) and Washington Governor Jay Inslee (0.2%)
  11. Seven potential 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates—California Representative Eric Swalwell (who may announce on April 8), Montana Governor Steve Bullock, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton, former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams—all have NSW-WAPA less than 1.0%.
  12. As for the remaining declared 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates: author Marianne Williamson (0.004%) is languishing at 15th among declared candidates (and #30 overall), while Messam registered 0% in both polls listing him; Ryan has yet to be included in a poll.
  13. One candidate, former West Virginia State Senator Richard Ojeda (0.0%), withdrew his candidacy on January 25, 2019.
  14. The other potential candidates (all of whom have announced they are not running for president in 2020) to register at least 1% in any of the 59 polls assessed here are former First Lady Michelle Obama (0.03%), Kennedy (0.03%), former Attorney General Eric Holder (0.02%), former Secretary of State John Kerry (0.02%), businesswoman Oprah Winfrey (0.005%), Steyer (0.003%) and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (0.001%).
  15. The other seven names to be included in at least one national poll (all registering 0% support) are attorney Michael Avenatti, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, California Governor Gavin Newson, former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
  16. Despite being asked about 42 different candidates, roughly 1 in 8 respondents did not state a preference or wanted an unlisted candidate.

In sum, there is currently a clear pecking order among potential 2020 Democratic presidential nominees: Biden and Sanders are the leaders, splitting just under half of the overall vote between them, followed by Harris, Warren, O’Rourke and Booker (29% total). Just behind these six candidates are Klobuchar and Buttigieg (5% total), meaning just eight candidates currently have 83% of the vote between them.

The only other candidate to top 1.0% is Gillibrand, though Gabbard—who rounds out the top 10—rounds up to 1.0%, as do Yang and Castro. However, with 16 declared candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination appearing in at least one poll (plus the just-announced Ryan) and another eight people contemplating running as well, the race is very much in flux with more than 15 months until Democrats convene in Milwaukee on July 13, 2020.

Until next time…

[1] That is, member of the United States House of Representatives.

[2] If the midpoint falls between days, I use the later day.

[3] I treated Morning Consult tracking polls and the Morning Consult/Politico polls as coming from distinct pollsters.

[4] The arithmetic difference between an estimate and the “true” (unmeasured) value.

[5] Post-Iowa primary/caucuses dates obtained here.

[6] It will be held over two nights to accommodate up to 20 candidates, with no more than 10 appearing each night.

An (Electoral) College education

Imagine it is late on the evening of Tuesday, November 2, 2004.

Actually, it is closer to 5 am EST on the morning of Wednesday, November 3, 2004.

Since 7 pm EST the previous night, CNN has been presenting the results of the 2004 presidential election between incumbent President George W. Bush, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger, United States Senator (“Senator”) John Kerry of Massachusetts.

At this point, Bush leads in the national popular vote by about 3.6 million votes (51% to 48%); by “national popular vote,” I mean every vote cast for president (and vice-presidential running mate) in the 50 states and the District of Columbia (DC). However, under Article I, Section I of the United States Constitution (“Constitution”)—with clarification in Amendment XII—this is not the vote that determines who is elected president of the United States.

Instead, a group of electors chosen by each individual state and DC (Amendment XIII, ratified March 29, 1961) “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct” (Article I, Section I) meet and cast separate for president and for vice president. The number of electors in each state is equal to the number of members that state currently has in the United States House of Representatives (“House”) plus two (the number of Senators every state has); DC is assigned three electors. With 435 House members, 100 Senators and 3 DC electors, there are 538 electoral votes (EV) up for grabs. In order to win the presidency, a party’s nominee must win a majority of the EV (currently 270); if no candidate wins 270 EV, the election goes to the House, with each House delegation (i.e., every House member from the same state) having a single vote to cast for the top three EV recipients (the Senate similarly would choose the vice president from the top two EV finishers on a simple majority vote of all Senators).

Thus, when I cast my vote in suburban Philadelphia for Senator Kerry and his vice-presidential running mate, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, I was actually casting my vote for a slate of 21 electors I had never heard of, all of whom had pledged to cast THEIR votes for the Kerry-Edwards ticket if it won the most votes in Pennsylvania (which it did, 50.9 to 48.4%)[1].

Returning to our 2004 election scenario: as of 5 am on the morning after the election, Bush has 254 EV and Kerry has 252 EV, meaning neither has yet achieved a majority. Only the winners of Ohio (20 EV), Iowa (7) and New Mexico (5) remain to be projected. Since Iowa and New Mexico have only 12 EV combined, whoever wins Ohio will win the election.

By this point, though, there were at most a few hundred thousand votes remaining to be counted in these three states, meaning it was mathematically impossible for Kerry to win the national popular vote—and yet it was still not clear who would win the presidency.

Suddenly, at around 5:15 am, anchor Wolf Blitzer interrupts commentator Jeff Greenfield in what for him is an agitated state.

The Associated Press, who have been feeding us raw vote totals since 7 pm yesterday, has just announced that it has found an error in the tabulation of votes in Cleveland. Rather than trailing by about 143,000 votes, Kerry is actually leading the president by about 107,000 votes. And with that, CNN can now project that when all of the votes are counted Massachusetts Senator John Kerry will win the state of Ohio—and its 20 electoral votes—making him the next president of the United States.”

Winning Ohio would have given Kerry 272 EV, two more than necessary (assuming no more than two “faithless electors”[2]) to win the presidency. For the record, Kerry actually lost OH by 118,601 votes, IA by 10,069 votes and NM by 5,088 votes (vote totals from Dave Leip’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections). But let us assume under this scenario that Kerry wins OH by 81,399 votes (an even 200,000 vote flip), while still losing IA and NM narrowly.

In this alternate reality, Kerry would have won the United States presidency—while still losing the national popular vote by 2.8 million votes! In fact, had Kerry also won NM and IA narrowly, he would have won 284 EV (to Bush’s 254)—while still losing the national popular vote by something like 2.75 million votes!

Broadly speaking, this is what actually happened in the 2016 presidential election. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by 2.87 million votes, largely on the strength of a 3.67 million vote win in California. However, Republican nominee Donald J. Trump won narrow victories in Michigan (10,704 votes), Wisconsin (22,748) and Pennsylvania (44,292), and their combined 46 EV gave him 306 EV and the presidency. Put another way, the 2016 presidential election was not decided by a national popular vote margin of nearly 3 million votes, but a combined margin in three states of 77,774 votes.

This was actually the fourth time since 1856—the first presidential election to feature Democratic and Republican party nominees—that the candidate who won the Electoral College lost the national popular vote; the Republican nominee won all four elections.

In fact, it had just happened in 2000. That year, Republican nominee George W. Bush beat Democratic nominee Al Gore in the Electoral College 271 to 266 (with one faithless elector), while losing the national popular vote by 547,398 votes. Under the “Kerry wins in 2004” scenario, this would mean that in back-to-back presidential elections, the winner of the Electoral College lost the national popular vote—with Democrats and Republicans switching places with regard to which party benefited from the divergence.

Presumably, this one-two punch would have led to bipartisan efforts to abolish the Electoral College, either by amending the Constitution (which requires winning at least 2/3 of the members of the both the House and Senate, followed by winning a majority in 3/4 of state legislatures) or by something like an agreement among states whose combined EV total is at least 270 to award their EV to whomever wins the national popular vote.

Actually, this exact idea—the National Popular Vote bill—was launched in 2006. As of this writing, the legislatures of 12 states and DC (whose EV total 181) have passed the bill (and had it signed by the governor), and it is expected to be signed into law in Delaware and New Mexico shortly, bringing the total to 189.

But…how did we get to this point in the first place?

Why do we even have an Electoral College?

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Just bear with me while I discuss what are now known as The Federalist Papers. Following the signing of the Constitution in September 1787, Alexander Hamilton realized how difficult it would be to convince each of 13 independent (and markedly different) colonies to ratify it, thus forming a “united” states; of particular concern was Governor George Clinton of “the growing State of New York.” [3] Hamilton thus began to write and publish a series of essays (under the pseudonym Publius) strongly defending decisions made by the Constitution’s framers; he was soon joined by James Madison and John Jay. In all, the three men—separately and together—wrote 85 essays. Federalist 68 (Hamilton) is specifically devoted to presidential electors, while Federalist 39 (Madison) grounds the idea of presidential electors in both the “republican” and “federal” nature of the proposed new government.

Federalist Papers.JPG

By “republican,” Madison means leaders are a) chosen directly or indirectly by the people and b) serve a limited time and/or under good behavior. In fact, Madison notes that most chief magistrates are already chosen through indirect means. As for “federalism”: rather than colonies merging into a single entity, there would be “a Confederacy of sovereign states.”[4] This was the great compromise: “the great and aggregate interests being referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures.”[5]

Moreover, in Federalist 10, Madison explains how a republican government can limit the deleterious effects of “factions,” which he describes as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”[6] While this certainly sounds like our current tribalistic partisan polarization—elevating loyalty to a political party over loyalty to the nation—Madison was really talking about factions emerging, then quickly disbanding, around a single issue or demagogic leader. He did not anticipate the emergence of two evenly-matched, organized, national political parties with broadly coherent policy agendas to which voters identify over multiple elections. Instead, Madison argued hopefully that an “extensive republic”[7] (sufficient representatives from a variety of localities) would diffuse the effects of any single faction.

Hamilton simply applied the logic of both “federal” and “republican” governance to the election of a president in Federalist 68, which I recommend reading in its entirety. He avoids saying the broader voting public cannot be entrusted to elect its presidents directly (until Amendment XVII was ratified in April 1913, United States Senators were selected by state legislatures), instead observing it was…

“…desirable that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation.”[8]

Moreover, having electors deliberate within their native state will create a “detached and divided situation [that] will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people.”

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That was the theory, at any rate: electors, chosen at the state level, would be free to choose whomever they thought would make the best president unfettered by factional loyalties; for a fractious collection of once-independent colonies, the logic is sound. And it worked in the first two presidential elections (1789 and 1792, during which electors had two votes, ostensibly one for president and one for vice president): George Washington finished first (making him president) with 69 and 132 EV, respectively, and John Adams finished second (making him vice president) with 77 and 34 EV, respectively. Even then, however, a nascent form of political parties was emerging, with Federalists like Washington and Adams, opposing anti-Federalists, like Governor Clinton.

By 1796, the anti-Federalists had become the Democratic-Republicans, and something akin to presidential tickets were emerging. Adams ran for president as a Federalist, with former South Carolina Governor Thomas Pinckney as his “running mate,” while Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr ran as the Democratic-Republican “ticket.” However, each man ran separately—which is how Adams received the most EV (71), making him president, while Jefferson finished a close second (68 EV), making him vice president. This was the first Electoral College: the election of a president and vice president from different “factions.”

When Adams ran for reelection four years later, the Jefferson-Burr ticket again opposed him. Unfortunately, Jefferson and Burr each received 73 EV because every Democratic-Republican elector split their votes between their party’s designated choices for president and vice president; the House ultimately selected Jefferson as president and Burr as vice president. This second glitch led to Amendment XII (ratified June 1804), establishing separate Electoral votes for president and vice president.

Much to the chagrin of Madison (who died in 1836), though, the modern strong two-party system was emerging, particularly under the leadership of Martin Van Buren, Vice President under Andrew Jackson (1829-37) then President (1837-1841). And the leaders of the two parties realized the best way to maximize the EV they received in a state was to legislate a “winner-take-all” system: whomever won the most votes in a state won all of that state’s EV—the system we have today. Virginia was the first state to adopt such a law,[9] in 1800; by 1832, only Maryland still split its EV. And as of 1880, every state had passed a “winner-take-all” law.

I cannot emphasize how important this history is to understanding the modern Electoral College. Remember, for Hamilton and Madison, the fundamental purpose of electors was to deliberate on the vital question of who they wanted to be the nation’s chief executive independent of factional alliance. The winner-take-all legislation—pushed by the very factions Madison sought to restrain—was not only antithetical to this purpose, it made a complete mockery of it.

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The first time the national popular and Electoral College votes diverged was in 1876.[10] Democratic nominee Samuel J. Tilden won the national popular vote over Republican Rutherford B. Hayes by 252,696 votes (3.0 percentage points [“points”]), but fell one EV shy of the required 185; Hayes had 164 EV. Nineteen EV were in dispute because both men declared victory in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina. Ultimately, Hayes was awarded all 19 disputed EV, as well as one problematic EV in Oregon,[11] making him the dubious winner.

After two excruciatingly close elections[12] which could easily have resulted in a divergence, it actually happened in 1888. Republican Benjamin Harrison lost the national popular vote to incumbent Democrat Grover Cleveland by 94,530 votes, but prevailed in the Electoral College, 233-168. However, despite four divergences/close calls in a row, any momentum toward ending the Electoral College system stalled once Cleveland decisively beat Harrison in an 1892 rematch, 277 to 145 EV, despite a national popular vote margin of “only” 3.0 points[13].

And then came 13 presidential elections (through 1944) in which the average national popular vote margin was 14.1 points and the average Electoral College margin was 266.5 EV. The only relatively close elections during this period were 1896 (Republican William McKinley beat Democrat William Jennings Bryan by 4.3 points, 95 EV) and 1916 (incumbent Democrat Woodrow Wilson held off Republican Charles Hughes by 3.2 points, 23 EV). In fact, had Hughes flipped just 1,887 votes in California, HE would have won despite losing the national popular vote by more than 570,000 votes.

Starting in 1948, though, “near misses” became more common. That year, incumbent Democrat Harry Truman was challenged by Republican Thomas E. Dewey, Progressive Henry Wallace and States Rights Strom Thurmond.  As I wrote hereDewey 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 […] would have won the 1948 presidential election…” Under this scenario, Dewey would still have lost the national popular vote by a remarkable 4.5 points (2.1 million votes).

Republican Dwight Eisenhower then defeated Democrat Adlai Stevenson by 10.8 points (353 EV) in 1952 and 15.4 points (384 EV) in 1956. But in 1960, Democrat John F. Kennedy defeated Republican Richard Nixon 303-219 EV, despite winning that national popular vote by only 0.17 points (112,827 votes). It is easy to imagine a scenario in which Nixon wins at least 113,000 additional votes across states he won, such as California, Florida, Ohio and Virginia, giving him a narrow national popular vote victory but a loss in the Electoral College—the first time a Democrat would have benefitted from such a divergence.

Four years later, incumbent Democrat Lyndon Johnson trounced Republican Barry Goldwater (22.5 points, 434 EV). But in 1968, Nixon beat Democrat Hubert Humphrey (and Wallace) by a solid 110 EV, despite winning the national popular vote by “only” 511,944 votes (0.7 points). While that is a substantial margin to overcome, had Humphrey won half the votes American Independent George Wallace won in Michigan (331,968), New York (358,864) and Pennsylvania (378.582), he would have won a bare national popular vote victory of 22,763 votes (but not the White House).

Nixon then handily defeated Democrat George McGovern in 1972 (23.2 points, 503 EV). Four years later, Democrat James E. Carter beat Republican Gerald R. Ford 297-240 EV while winning the national popular vote by 2.1 points (1,683,247 votes).  However, Ford only lost Ohio’s 25 EV by 11,116 votes and Mississippi’s 7 EV by 14,463 votes; a simple shift of just 12,760 votes in these two states would have given Ford 272 EV (and the White House) despite losing the national popular vote by well over 1.6 million votes.

After four near-misses in eight presidential elections, however, the next five (1980-96) were not especially close, with average winning margins of 10.0 points and 337.8 EV[14]. Still, that brings us to the five most recent presidential elections, three of which ended in divergence (2000, 2016) or came very close (2004). Even in 2012, had Republican Willard “Mitt” Romney flipped 214,761 votes across Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia, he would have won 270 EV—and the White House—despite losing the national popular vote by more than 4.5 million votes (3.9 points).

To summarize, in the 38 presidential elections following the end of the Civil War, there have been…

  • 4 elections (1876, 1888, 2000, 2016) in which the candidate who won the Electoral College lost the national popular vote
  • 2 elections (1880, 1884) where a small shift in votes across a few states could have produced divergence in either direction
  • 2 elections (1916, 2004) where flipping fewer than 60,000 votes in only one state would have produced divergence
  • 1 election (1976) where flipping 12,790 votes in just two states would have produced divergence
  • 2 elections in which flipping a total of ~60,000 votes in three states (1948) or ~215,000 votes in four states (2012) would have produced an extremely narrow Electoral College victory AND a national popular vote loss averaging 3.4 million votes
  • 2 elections in which a candidate would have had to win an additional 130,000 votes across four states (1960) or win back half the votes of a third-party candidate in three states (530,000+ votes) to produce divergence.

Thus, one in three presidential elections over 150 years (1868-2016) either featured divergence or could have done so with varying degrees of plausibility. The Republican presidential nominee won all four “divergence” elections and would have won between four and six (depending on 1880, 1884) of the other nine “plausible divergence scenario” elections, for a total of 8-10 Republican victories (vs. 3-5 Democratic victories). And eight of those 13 elections came in two different five-election “blocks” of (mostly) close presidential elections: 1876-1892 and 2000-2016.

Those two blocks highlight a basic truth about the Electoral College: so long as the national popular vote margin is wide enough (≥5.0 points), there will be no divergence, making the Electoral College a quaint anachronism. But the closer the national popular vote margin (particularly <3.0 points), the higher the likelihood of divergence. And just because it does not always happen in this latter circumstance is purely a matter of chance.

It is worth keeping in mind that Hamilton and Madison had absolutely no conception of a national popular vote, because they did not intend for the general voting public to vote directly for a president (or vice president), any more than they could envision the modern two-party system reducing the choices to a few viable candidates. That very system, though, has reduced the electors to mere human rubber stamps, archaically ratifying what we already knew on Election Day (or a few days later). Their independence—and their role in the delicate compromise between “sovereign” states and the national government—was gone by 1836, if not earlier.

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Which leads to one final question: are there any good reasons to continue using the Electoral College to elect the president and vice president of the United States?

Arguments for keeping the Electoral College fall into two broad categories:

  1. Upholding tradition
  2. It prevents smaller states/rural areas from being ignored by presidential candidates seeking to maximize national vote totals.

The first category has two primary components:

  • It is very difficult to amend the Constitution
  • We continue to be a federalist republic, so giving states an independent role in selecting the president is necessary.

Taking each component in turn:

Amending the Constitution is indeed extremely difficult; it has only happened on 18 separate occasions (counting the 10-amendment Bill of Rights as one occasion) in 230 years. However, all that means is that amending the Constitution requires time, bipartisan effort and focus.

And there are 27 amendments (Amendment XXI even repealed Amendment XVIII)—including those arising from a steady increase over time in direct democracy such as expanded suffrage (blacks, women, 18-20-year-olds) and altered electoral processes (direct election of Senators). Similarly, since the 1968 McGovern-Fraser Commission, the process by which presidential nominees are selected has become far more democratic (if not completely so) through the establishment of state-level primaries and caucuses which use voter preferences to select Democratic and Republican nomination convention delegates.

That individual states select convention delegates using their own rules, broadly analogous to the Electoral College (even if Democrats allot delegates proportionally, not winner-take-all), demonstrates an ongoing robust federalism. Moreover, even if the Electoral College were repealed (or legislatively overruled), there would still be a solid division of labor between the national government and state (and local) governments.

The single most frivolous argument in this category, though, was made recently by Michael Steel, former spokesman for Republican former House Speaker John Boehner[15]: using the national popular vote to elect a president would be like using attendance to determine the outcome of a baseball game.

Ummm, what now?

First, how would one divide attendance to determine a winner? Second, the winner of a baseball game actually IS the team that scored the most runs—not the team that scored the most runs in the most innings, a better analogy between a baseball game and the Electoral College.

In the same conversation, however, Steel all-but-admitted Republicans want to keep the Electoral College because it has allowed them to win the White House three times in the last five elections despite only winning the national popular vote once. And that brings us to the second set of arguments: that presidential candidates would spend all their time in the biggest population centers rather than trying to win votes across the entire nation.

Forget that presidents (and vice presidents) were never meant to campaign anywhere; they were supposed to wait for the decision of independent state-level electors. Or the fact that Hamilton and Madison said nothing about protecting small states or rural areas; if anything, they were trying to convince the largest state—New York—to ratify the Constitution.

No, the fundamental flaw in this argument is that, since the advent of winner-take-all laws 200+ years ago, candidates for president and vice president have limited their campaigning to a few “swing states.”

Let me demonstrate using 3W_RDM, which measures how much or less Democratic a state’s presidential voting is relative to the nation. Table 1 lists the 12 states most in play in 2020, using the median Democratic margin in the national popular vote in the last five elections (2.1 points)[16] and an average 3W-RDM “miss” of 5.4[17].

Table 1: States most likely in play in the 2020 presidential election

State EV 3W-RDM Projected Margin in 2020
Michigan 16 D+2.2 D+4.3 (R+1.1 to D+9.7)
Colorado 9 D+2.2 D+4.3 (R+1.1 to D+9.7)
Nevada 6 D+2.0 D+4.1 (R+1.3 to D+9.5)
Minnesota 10 D+1.5 D+3.6 (R+1.8 to D+9.0)
Virginia 13 D+1.5 D+3.6 (R+1.8 to D+9.0)
Wisconsin 10 D+0.7 D+2.8 (R+2.6 to D+8.2)
New Hampshire 4 D+0.1 D+2.2 (R+3.2 to D+7.6)
Pennsylvania 20 R+0.4 D+1.7 (R+3.7 to D+7.1)
Florida 29 R+3.4 R+1.3 (R+6.7 to D+4.1)
Iowa 6 R+4.7 R+2.6 (R+8.0 to D+2.8)
Ohio 18 R+5.8 R+3.7 (R+9.1 to D+1.7)
North Carolina 15 R+6.0 R+3.6 (R+9.3 to D+1.5)
TOTAL 156 R+0.8

One can quibble with the mix of states[18]—perhaps the 27 EV in Georgia (R+9.6) and Arizona (R+9.7) are more in play for Democrats than the 24 EV in Iowa and Ohio. But the point is that in 2020 presidential candidates will focus on, at most, 14 states—a far cry from the “nationwide campaign” hyped by Electoral College advocates.

Their argument about small states fares little better. Using EV as a proxy for population, 22 states (including DC) can be considered “small” (<7 EV; median=8), of which seven are “likely Democratic,” 12 are “likely Republican,” and only three (Nevada, New Hampshire, Iowa) are potentially in play in 2020[19]; In other words, under the current Electoral College system that supposedly protects smaller states—at most three of the 22 smallest states will see ANY campaigning.

Then there is the argument only major metropolitan areas—usually limited to California (55 EV) and New York (29 EV), though not Texas (38 EV)—would see any presidential campaigning at all, completely ignoring rural areas.

First, this is precisely how campaigns are generally currently conducted within many states: Democrats rely on massive turnout in urban areas, Republicans rely on massive turnout in rural areas, with each hoping suburban areas break their way. Why is this acceptable? Why not apply Electoral College logic by assigning every county (or other sub-state area) a number of votes based upon its representation in its legislature, so that to be elected governor, for example, you would need to win a majority of these sub-state level votes?

Other than its patent absurdity, I suspect the answer is that statewide elections invalidate the “rural areas would get the shaft” argument. Theoretically, that same formula could apply at the national level:  Republicans would campaign in rural areas in every state, Democrats would campaign in urban areas in every state, and both would battle over suburban votes in every state[20]. Even more radically, Republicans could compete aggressively for urban voters, with Democrats countering by competing aggressively for rural voters. This would thoroughly upend the current geographic and policy alignments of the two parties in unforeseeable but interesting ways.

Here is the simple reality: Hamilton and Madison argued for the Electoral College in The Federalist Papers because they a) feared voters could easily be manipulated by factional loyalties and b) were luring 13 sovereign colonies into a single “united states.” But the emergence of strong political parties (national factions), the continued existence of robust federalism, the ongoing expansion of direct democracy and winner-take-all laws that run counter to the deliberative intentions of electors moot their arguments. The Electoral College simply has not served its original stated purpose since at least 1796, and it is time to repeal it to allow the only two elected officials who represent the entire nation to be elected by national popular vote.

Until next time…

[1] I was living in the suburb of King of Prussia at the time. Every morning, as I drove to the commuter rail station in Radnor, I would count the lawn signs for Bush-[Vice President Dick) Cheney and Kerry-Edwards. On average, the count was something like 24 for Kerry-Edwards, 12 for Bush-Cheney—and a smattering for Shreiner Tree Care!

[2] In the 2016 presidential election, there were a record seven such electors—five Democrats and two Republicans.

[3] According to the “Message to Mankind” written just inside the front cover of my paperback copy of Rossiter, Clinton, editor. 1961. The Federalist Papers. New York, NY: NAL PENGUIN INC.

[4] Ibid., pg. 243. Italics in the original text.

[5] Ibid., pg. 83.

[6] Ibid., pg. 79.

[7] Ibid., pg. 82.

[8] Ibid., pg. 412

[9] Technically, three states had winner-take-all laws in 1789, but each repealed them by 1800.

[10] I exclude the presidential election of 1824 because, technically Andrew Jackson won both the national popular vote AND the most EV, but because he fell 32 EV shy of the required majority (131 EV), the House decided the election in favor of the runner-up in both areas, John Quincy Adams. Moreover, both Adams and Jackson were Democratic-Republicans (the Federalist Party had faded away).

[11] An elector was invalid because he was an elected official.

[12] 1880 (9,070 votes, 59 EV) and 1884 (58.579, 37 EV)

[13] There were also bigger election system fish to fry, such as the direct election of Senators (Amendment XVII, 1913) and women’s suffrage (Amendment XIX, August 1920).

[14] The presidential election of 1988 was closer than it appears at first glance. Yes, Republican George H. W. Bush beat Democrat Michael Dukakis by 7.8 points and 315 EV. But Bush won a number of states by narrower margins than that. While this is a stretch, had Dukakis flipped a total of 615,920 votes across 12 states (CA, CO, CT, IL, MD, MI, MO, MT, NM, PA, SD, VT), he would have won the Electoral College 270-268 (assuming no faithless electors) despite losing the national popular vote by more than 5.8 million votes. Similarly, four years later, Democrat Bill Clinton defeated President Bush by 5.6 points and 202 EV. Had Bush flipped just over 300,000 votes in 10 states (CO, GA, KY, LA, NJ, OH, TN, WI and any two of MT, NV, NH), he would have won 271 or 272 EV, despite losing the national popular vote by nearly 5.2 million votes.

[15] Steel makes the argument at 39:15 here.  Actually, the entire conversation between host Chris Matthews, Steel and Reed Hundt is worth watching; Steel starts off on solid ground, then slowly deteriorates.

[16] The average of 2.3 points is slightly skewed by Obama’s 2008 margin of 7.3 points.

[17] Democrats are strong favorites in 16 states (including DC) totaling 191 EV, and Republicans are strong favorites in 23 states totaling 191 EV.

[18] Including Maine (D+5.9) and Nebraska (R+25.8), who give two EV to the statewide winner, and one EV to the winner of each Congressional district.

[19] These are also the first three primary/caucus states, undercutting arguments about their “unrepresentativeness.”

[20] This also answers a hypothetical question I like to pose: if we had had been using the national popular vote to elect presidents and vice presidents since 1789, would anyone have proposed a system as convoluted and, frankly, anti-democratic as the Electoral College as a “solution” to whatever problems may have arisen? I sincerely doubt it.

Organizing by themes I: American politics

This site benefits/suffers/both from consisting of posts about a wide range of topics, all linked under the amorphous heading “data-driven storytelling.”

In an attempt to impose some coherent structure, I am organizing related posts both chronologically and thematically.

Given that I have multiple degrees in political science, with an emphasis on American politics, it is not surprising that I have written a few dozen posts in that field…and that is where I begin.

I Voted sticker

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I started by writing about the 2016 elections, many based on my own state-partisanship metric (which I validate here).

The absurdity of the Democratic “blue wall” in the Electoral College

Hillary Clinton’s performance in five key states (IA, MI, OH, PA, WI)

Why Democrats should look to the south (east and west)

How having (or not) a college degree impacted voting

An alternative argument about gerrymandering

An early foray into what I call “Clinton derangement”

The only statistic from 2016 that really matters

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Here are a few posts about presidential polling (before FiveThirtyEight jumped on the bandwagon)…

Be careful interpreting President Trump’s approval polls

…and the 2017 special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District (GA-6)

Ossoff and the future of the Democratic Party

Using GA-6 polls to discuss statistical significance testing (spoiler: I am not a fan)

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And then I started looking ahead to 2018…first to control of the United States House of Representatives (“House”). Note that posts are often cross-generic…

An alternative argument about gerrymandering

The impact of voting to repeal (and not replace) Obamacare (May 2017)

I debut my simple forecast model (June 2017)

Making more points about polls and probability

A March 2018 update

A followup March 2018 update (after which I stopped writing about the 2018 House elections)

…then the United States Senate

The view from May 2017

What it meant that the Senate voted NOT to repeal Obamacare in July 2017

The view from December 2017

…and, finally, races for governor in 2017 AND 2018.

The view from June 2017

A tangentially-related post may be found here.

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After Labor Day 2018, I developed models (based on “fundamentals” and polls) to “forecast” the Senate elections…

September 4

September 13

October 23

…and those for governor (the October 23 post addressed both sets of races)

September 16

These culminated in…

My Election Day cheat sheet

And my own assessment of how I did (spoiler: not half bad)

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Finally, there are other politics posts that defy easy categorization.

I indulged in some speculative alternative history about the presidential elections of 1948 and 2000.

I delineated issue differences between Democrats and Republicans.

I got a bit personal here and here, concluding with the fact that, despite overlapping in the same residential college at Yale for two years, I did NOT know Associate Justice Brett Kavanagh at all.

I argued for the abolition of the Electoral College.

Until next time…

Rest in peace, George Herbert Walker Bush

Late on the night of January 20, 1989, I walked out of Dan’s Cafe—a dive bar in the Adams Morgan section of Washington, DC[1]—after imbibing a few or five or six bottles of Rolling Rock. Clutching my long black overcoat around me, I started to cross 18th street (likely to get a bite to eat, as my apartment on 16th, just south of Columbia, was a few blocks to the east). The headphones of my Walkman covered my ears; I think I was listening to Depeche Mode.

I did not see the car until it was practically upon me. Helpful witnesses later said it was black—or maybe blue or perhaps green. Whatever color it was, it knocked me to the ground without stopping; perhaps because I had no time to stiffen in panic, I only separated my right shoulder.

Earlier that day, I had watched the sitting Vice President sworn in as the 41st president of the United States. In his acceptance speech the previous August, the then-Vice-President had called for a “kinder and gentler nation.”

So naturally, as I lay on the street unable to move, convinced cars would start knocking me between lanes like a human pinball, my first thought was, “So much for kinder and gentler.”

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George Herbert Walker Bush, who died Friday night at the age of 94, exemplified a vanishing strain of self-effacing, self-sacrificing American patriotism: son of a United States Senator, heroic Navy pilot in World War II, Yale baseball team captain (light-hitting, solid defensive left-handed first baseman), successful Texas oilman, two-term member of the United States House of Representatives (“House”) before losing the 1970 United States Senate election in Texas to Lloyd Bentsen (who would resurface as an opponent 18 years later), Ambassador to the United Nations, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, envoy to China, and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (where, unbeknownst to his family, my late father-in-law worked). Bush then served as Vice President of the United States from January 20, 1981 to January 20, 1989—at which point he ascended to the Presidency, the first sitting Vice President to do so since Martin Van Buren in 1837. He was also father to two sons who served a combined 22 years as Florida governor, Texas governor and president. With few exceptions, he tackled these activities with grace, dignity and the desire to serve his country to the best of his considerable abilities.

Because it is one of my primary passions, I write a great deal about American politics on this site, mostly through a data-analytic lens. Inevitably, I referred to President Bush 41 in a number of posts. To honor the memory of this American hero—with whom I rarely agreed, but whom I came greatly to respect—I will tell his story through those posts.

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The first inkling I had that someone named George Bush existed came when I was in 8th grade:

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_

Bush fit my home state’s Republican Party well in 1980:

Back home, Pennsylvania was narrowly electing a series of liberal-to-moderate Republicans who, again, I admired without always agreeing with them: Senator John Heinz in 1976 (even as [Jimmy] Carter won Pennsylvania by 2.7 percentage points), Governor Richard Thornburgh in 1978, and Senator Arlen Specter in 1980. Heinz easily won reelection twice before dying in a plane crash in 1991 at the age of 52. Like most Pennsylvanians, I was deeply saddened by the loss of this good man. […]  In 1986, I voted for pro-choice Republican Bill Scranton for governor.

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I followed the 1988 presidential election in three places. First, I watched the primaries and caucuses in the living room of the off-campus apartment I shared with two other Yale seniors in New Haven, CT. I touched briefly on Bush’s nomination here:

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, [John] McCain 2008, Mitt Romney 2012), implying McCain would have been the prohibitive front-runner had he run in 2004 [in an alternate history in which Vice President Al Gore wins the 2000 presidential election].

Next, I watched the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in my mother’s condominium in the Philadelphia suburb of Penn Valley, where I was spending the summer; driving home along Hagys Ford Road one day that August, I heard on the radio that Bush had selected Indiana Senator Dan Quayle to be his running mate.

Finally, I watched the fall election in that Adams Morgan apartment. At an event at the Brookings Institute, where I worked, a few days before the election, I was one of only two people in the audience to raise a hand to the question, “Who here thinks [Massachusetts Governor Michael] Dukakis will win the election?”

Had I listened to my future self, I would have better seen what was coming:

From 1968 through 1988 it was the Republicans who had an even-more-impregnable “red wall,” with 22 states voting for the Republican presidential nominee in six consecutive presidential elections and 13 other states doing so in five of them. The Republicans won the White House in five of these six elections, averaging 417 EV [electoral votes].

Despite not wanting Bush to win, however, I was pleasantly surprised just one day later:

The 1988 presidential campaign was so banal that the Washington Post did not endorse either Bush or Michael Dukakis. Bush’s campaign sank to some particularly ugly depths (Willie Horton, flag-burning, demonizing liberals). The afternoon after Bush won, however, I watched President-elect Bush introduced James Baker as his nominee for Secretary of State. My surprised reaction was “wow, the governing Bush looks like an entirely different cat.” Other Bush Administration picks like Jack Kemp (HUD), Dick Darman (OMB), Thornburgh (Justice), Liddy Dole (Labor), and Brent Scowcroft (National Security Advisor) signaled to me a mature, less-ideological approach to governing.

I watched Bush introduce Baker on a television set just outside my Brookings office, and I followed the Cabinet selections in the New York Times and Washington Post, which I would read each morning over my coffee and bowl of Nut’n’Honey cereal. As for the morning I read excitedly about Kemp’s nomination…well, a gentleman does not kiss and tell.

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I have written about the results of the 1988 presidential election in multiple contexts. First, there was the simple—and unusual—fact that Bush’s win marked a third consecutive Republican presidential victory.

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 7.7 percentage points and 315 EV.

Second, I wrote this passage in the context of validating my measure (3W-RDM) of how Democratic or Republican state is, relative to the nation:

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).

1988 Presidential map

Still, that is close to the 112 EV Dukakis won in 1988. As the purple-inked states on this beautiful hand-drawn map 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.

What I did not know then, however, was that Bush’s 1988 victory would mark the beginning of the end of a singular American political era:

Four years earlier, however, G. H. W. Bush had won 53.4% of the popular vote against Democrat Michael Dukakis (45.6%), winning 40 states and 426 EV; Bush beat Dukakis 53.9 to 46.1% in the two-party vote. Bush’s near-landslide victory (in the Electoral College, anyway) meant that Republicans would control the White House for a third consecutive four-year term.

In the six presidential elections from 1968 through 1988 (Table 1), Republicans won the presidency five times, four times by landslides (1972, 1980, 1984) or near-landslides (1988). The one Democratic victor was Jimmy Carter in 1976, in the wake of Republican President Richard Nixon’s Watergate-related resignation in August 1974, Nixon’s pardon by his successor (Gerald Ford) and various Ford gaffes. Still, Carter only managed to beat Ford by 2.1 percentage points (50.1 to 48.0%) and 57 EV (297-240); Ford actually won more states: 27 to 23 (plus DC). In fact, had Ford flipped 5,559 votes in Ohio (25 EV) and 7,232 votes in Mississippi (7 EV)—just 12,791 votes out of 81,540,780 cast, he would have won 272 EV and held on to the presidency.

Overall in those six presidential elections, the Democratic candidates averaged 42.9% of the popular vote (45.1% of the two-party vote), victories in nine states (plus DC) and 113.0 EV. The White House essentially “belonged” to the Republicans during this period.

During the same time period, however, Democrats controlled the House and held a majority of governorships. They controlled the Senate for 18 of 24 years, excepting only 1981-87. Following the 13 even-numbered elections from 1968 through 1992, Democrats averaged majorities of all votes cast for Senate, House and governor, for an average of 54.5 Senate seats, 262.1 House seats and 31.0 governor’s mansions.

In other words, from 1968 through 1992, while Republicans held a near lock on the White House, Democrats controlled Congress (both Houses for 20 years) and a majority of governor’s mansions. One interpretation is that voters preferred Republicans in the White House to conduct foreign policy (i.e., fight the Cold War) and preferred Democrats to manage domestic affairs (i.e., protect entitlements).

As for the single Bush (41) Administration, I wrote little beyond this:

Clearly, history is not always predictive. The president’s party lost an average of 13.8 House seats in the four qualifying midterm elections from 1962-1982, yet President George H.W. Bush’s Republicans only lost 8 House seats in 1990, while President Bush was still receiving plaudits for the first Gulf War and the end of the Cold War. [emphasis added]

I also obliquely referenced the event that continues to define that Administration more than any other.

In a subsequent post, I will examine the defining events of 1998 through 1994 in more detail, moving from then-Vice-President G. H. W. Bush’s acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention through the wildly successful (for Republicans) 1994 midterm elections.

In his August 1988 acceptance speech, Bush presented a scenario in which the Democratic-majority Congress would keep asking him to raise taxes, and he would refuse each time, finally insisting, “Read my lips: no new taxes!” However, facing a ballooning budget deficit, Bush was forced to relent (a decision that likely cost him reelection, even as it paved the way for the budget surpluses of the late 1990s); on November 5, 1990, he signed the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990. This compromise budget bill included a modest tax increase on the incomes of the wealthiest Americans, leading conservative commentator Pat Buchanan to challenge Bush in the 1992 New Hampshire Primary.

Incidentally, the events I was going to examine in that never-written post are thoroughly examined in this engaging new book by the indefatigable Steve Kornacki.

IMG_3982

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History shows that President Bush might have a tough time winning reelection even if he had not broken his “no new taxes” pledge”:

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.

And, in fact:

On Tuesday, November 3, 1992, [Arkansas Governor Bill] Clinton captured 43.0% of the popular vote cast for president, 5.6 percentage points more than G. H. W. Bush (37.4%) and 24.0 percentage points more than Independent H. Ross Perot (19.0%). Considering only votes cast for the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates (“two-party vote”), Clinton beat Bush 53.5 to 46.5%.

Clinton also won 32 states, plus the District of Columbia (DC), for a total of 370 electoral votes (EV); Bush received only 168 EV.

In other words, in just four years, Democrats had increased their share of the two-party popular vote by 7.4 percentage points, flipped 22 states from Democratic to Republican, and increased their EV total from 112 to 370.

That is an astonishing turnaround.

        […]     

Republicans blamed Bill Clinton for breaking their iron grip on the White House, and they have been punishing him (and his wife) for it ever since.

Just like that, a new American political era emerged:

With the elections of 1992 and 1994, the Democratic and Republican Parties switched governing roles. The Democratic Party went from being primarily a Congressional and state-house party to primarily a national (i.e., White House) party, while the Republican Party went in the opposite direction.

In the seven presidential elections from 1992 through 2016, Democrats won the presidential popular vote six of seven times (despite only winning the Electoral College—and thus the White House—four times), the exception being 2004, when Republican George W. Bush won reelection by 2.4 percentage points (50.7 to 48.3%) over Democrat John Kerry, capturing 286 EV to Kerry’s 251. […] Overall in those seven presidential elections, the Democratic candidates averaged 48.7% of the popular vote (52.0% of the two-party vote), victories in 23.7 states (plus DC) and 313.4 EV.

Meanwhile, since January 1995, Democrats have only controlled the House and held a majority of governorships for four years (2007-11), while controlling the Senate for only nine-plus years (May 2001[5]-January 2003, 2007-15). Following the 12 even-numbered elections from 1994 through 2016, while Democrats managed rough parity in Senate votes, they lost the overall vote for House and governor, earning an average 48.3 Senate seats, 208.7 House seats and 20.7 governor’s mansions.

This switch was accompanied by a drastic makeover of the Republican Party.

I plan to argue in a later post that something began to go haywire with the Republican Party right around Bush’s failed reelection campaign in 1992 and the subsequent Republican takeover of the House and Senate in 1994. I now feel that the party—with a few possible exceptions like Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker—has become completely unhinged.

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That President George Herbert Walker Bush really was a different kind of cat is best illustrated by the fact he pointedly invited President Donald J. Trump to his funeral, despite no love being lost between the two Republican presidents. Bush simply believed this is how things are supposed to be done.

And finally:

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. 

Just as Truman’s presidency has been dramatically positively reassessed in the 66 years since he left office (to the point where he was recently ranked 6th-best), I firmly believe that of Bush 41 will also be.

Rest in peace, Mr. President. Your mission is complete.

Until next time…

[1] It was the sort of place where the men’s room, which locked from the outside, had a sign on its door reading “Please do not use drugs in the bathroom.”

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?