Margin of Σrror

Margin of Σrror -

Dynastic Politics and the 2014 Elections

Dynastic politics was on full display in Great Britain this week with the birth of Prince George Louis Alexander Louis of Cambridge. Although the coverage of the royal birth has begun to calm down, lovers of hereditary politics should not fret! After all, the slate of candidates running in the 2014 Senate elections (and a few House and Governor races too) in the United States is a who’s who of candidates who had politically active progenitors.

Seven of the eleven most competitive races in 2014 for a seat in the “world’s greatest deliberative body” (based on the rankings of Chris Cilizza’s The Fix) feature candidates descended from political lineage. The four most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, Mark Pryor of Arkansas,  Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska, and Kay Hagan of North Carolina, all had fathers (or in Hagan’s case, an uncle) who served in public office.

Senator Pryor’s father, David Pryor, once served as a United States Senator from Arkansas, as well as holding a number of other political roles. Senator Landrieu father, Moon Landrieu, once served as mayor of New Orleans (a post now held by Senator Landrieu’s brother Mitch) and was a member of President Jimmy Carter’s cabinet. Before tragically perishing in a plane crash, Nick Begich—father to Senator Mark Begich—was a member of the House of Representatives. Finally, Senator Hagan is the niece of the late Lawton Chiles, who once served as both Governor and U.S. Senator from the State of Florida.

Several candidates running in open seat races or as challengers also have a strong political lineage. This past week, Michelle Nunn—daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA)—announced that she would run for her father’s old seat in the U.S. Senate. Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is challenging Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), is the daughter of former Kentucky Democratic Party Chair and State Senator Jerry Lundergan. Finally, on the Republican side, West Virginia Representative Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) is the daughter of former Governor of West Virginia Arch Moore.

Democrats also tried, but ultimately did not succeed in their attempts to recruit former Representative Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin (D-SD) or U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson to run in the South Dakota Senate race. Herseth’s grandfather, Ralph Herseth, served as South Dakota governor and her grandmother, Lorna Herseth, served as Secretary of State of South Dakota. (Herseth’s husband, Max Sandlin, also once served in Congress.) Brendan Johnson is the son of current South Dakota U.S. Senator Tim Johnson.

It is also worth mentioning that two other U.S. Senators who are up for reelection in states that are currently somewhat less competitive— Senators Mark Udall (D-CO) and Tom Udall (D-NM)— also hail from a famous political family. And in Wyoming, Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice-President Dick Cheney, is running for the seat currently held by Mike Enzi (R-WY).

In keeping with the this theme, several races for other offices also deserve a mention. In Florida’s Second Congressional District, Democrat Gwen Graham—daughter of former Senator Bob Graham (D-FL)—hopes to unseat two-term Republican Steve Southerland. Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District also features the daughter of a former member of Congress running to unseat a Republican incumbent. In this district, Erin Bilbray-Kohn, the daughter of former Congressman James Bilbray (D-NV), is running against Representative Joe Heck (R-NV). Last, but certainly not least, William Daley, a member of the Chicago Daley family is running in a primary against Democratic Illinois Governor Pat Quinn.

Although victory in the Revolutionary War means that Americans will never have Prince George of Cambridge as their King, dynastic politics is still very alive on this side of the pond. While 2014 features an especially large number of candidates with political antecedents, political dynasties have been a part of American politics since the Adamses (and perhaps before). This custom continued with the Roosevelts, the Kennedys, the Bushes, and countless other examples over the next several centuries. So despite initially seeming strange for a country with the popular traditions of the United States to have so many inheritors of political legacies running for office in 2014, these midterm elections are yet another chapter in the American tradition of dynastic politics!

Where are the Polls?: Virginia’s 2013 Race for Governor

Today marks a very strange anniversary. It has been exactly one month since any poll has been released in the Virginia Governor’s race. The last poll in this race, conducted by Rasmussen from June 5th-6th, was released June 10, 2013.

The dearth of polling in this race is strange for several reasons. First, the race for governor is shaping up to be a close one this year in Virginia. In fact, the Real Clear Politics polling average has the race as an exact tie right now at 42.4% of the vote for both Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe.  With such a close race shaping up, one would expect more frequent polling of this race.

Second, a number of polls have been conducted in other states during this time period. All the stranger is the fact that the states where polls have been conducted in this time period either do not feature major elections until 2014 such as Montana and Ohio or feature races that are not particularly close such as New Jersey (both Governor and Senate).

Third, during the same period in both 2005 and 2009 several polls were released in the Virginia Governor’s race (although there was an odd lull in polling from mid-August to early September in 2005). As the number of firms conducting public polls (and total number of polls) seems to have substantially increased in the past few years, the lack of polling this year in Virginia becomes even stranger.

Fourth, there are several other clear reasons to poll the state of Virginia besides the governor’s race. Both the extreme statements made by Lieutenant Governor Candidate E.W. Jackson and the scandal(s) surrounding Governor Bob McDonnell have also dominated the news in Virginia in recent weeks. Certainly Virginians (and all Americans) would find poll questions related to those topics to be of interest as well.

At this point, I don’t have a clear explanation for the lack of polling in Virginia, but I will offer my best conjecture for why we have not seen more polls in recent weeks. I think part of it stems from the fact that the race is, to quote Public Policy Polling, a “lesser of two evils race.” In other words, this race does not feature a widely popular candidate such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or Newark Mayor and Senate candidate Cory Booker (nor is there even a candidate in the race as, let us just say, entertaining as Anthony Weiner for New York City Mayor).

If this race is truly a race between the “lesser of two evils” as Public Policy Polling posits, then the race will be decided by underlying partisan dynamics and the ability of each side to turn out their base in what is likely to be a low turnout election. Such conditions are generally not a recipe for great interest from the public. Therefore, with a general lack of interest from the public, there is not a great incentive for polling firms to go out of their way to poll this state.

We certainly will see polls out of Virginia in the weeks and months to come. Nevertheless, the current situation is puzzling and is at least worthy of mention.

“Trust, But Verify:” Quinnipiac and the GOP surge in the States

Recent weeks have seen a spate of good news for Republicans in Quinnipiac polls of several 2014 governor’s races. In Colorado, Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper leads conservative ex-Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-CO) by just one point, Republican Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler by only two points, and Republican State Senator Greg Brophy by just six points. In Connecticut, Democratic Governor Dan Malloy actually trails 2010 opponent and former U.S. Ambassador Tom Foley by three points. (Malloy also has single digits leads over other possible opponents with low name identification.)

In Ohio, Republican Governor John Kasich leads his likely Democratic opponent, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, by fourteen percentage points. Finally, in what qualifies as good news for Republicans in Florida, unpopular Republican Governor Rick Scott trails now-Democratic former Governor Charlie Crist by ten points (previously, Scott had trailed by even larger margins).

So what is one to make of these polls? Are Republicans poised for a midterm rebound in these states or are these polls too rosy for Republicans?

First, it should be said that there is certainly a case to be made that the Democratic Party will fare at least somewhat poorly in the 2014 midterms. Traditionally, two-term presidents experience a six-year itch as their party loses offices around the county in their second midterm election (Bill Clinton in 1998 was an exception). Furthermore (and separate from the six-year itch), the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman notes that Republicans have a built-in turnout advantage for the midterm elections. This built-in Republican edge in midterm turnout has grown especially large in recent years.

Second, at the same time, it is also unwise to uncritically accept the results of a single poll (or a series of polls from the same polling firm). As Nate Silver and Real Clear Politics have shown in recent elections, poll averages tend to perform well in forecasting election results (Silver weights polls based on the past quality of the polling firm, while Real Clear Politics uses an unweighted average). Indeed, it is not coincidental that the two Senate races that Silver’s model incorrectly predicted—North Dakota and Montana—suffered from a dearth of polling data.

This is not to say that Quinnipiac is necessarily any better or worse than any other polling firm. Indeed, a post-election analysis of polling accuracy from Nate Silver’s 538 blog rated Quinnipiac as 11th of the 23 polling firms that conducted at least 5 polls in the last three weeks of the campaign.

Yet, like every polling firm, Quinnipiac conducts a poll from time to time that seems to be an outlier. For example, a mid-September 2010 Quinnipiac Ohio poll showed John Kasich leading Ted Strickland by a whopping 17 points. According to Real Clear Politics, polls from several other polling firms who conducted polls at roughly the same time as Quinnipiac showed Kasich with a substantially smaller lead (Kasich ultimately won by 2 percent in November).

In keeping with what recent polls from Quinnipiac suggest, Republicans may well be surging in the states. But one should at least be somewhat skeptical of these results until they are confirmed by results from other polling firms (or even future polls from Quinnipiac in the same states).

A complete lack of skepticism, best epitomized by a recent piece from POLITCO declaring John Kasich as a model for GOP success in swing states, results in too great a willingness to accept as fact the results of a single poll. At the same time, a complete dismissal of these Quinnipiac polls would be equally (or perhaps even more) silly.

So what is the right approach? Acceptance of results combined with a healthy dose of skepticism until confirmed by other polls. Or as our 40th President was famous for saying about U.S. relations with the Soviet Union, “trust, but verify.”

A 2012 Senate Parallel in the 2013 Virginia Governor’s Race

The 2013 race for Virginia Governor is already shaping up as one for the ages. Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is (by almost any measure) the most conservative nominee for Virginia Governor in modern electoral history, while Terry McAuliffe is a candidate with a number of flaws and is seen by many as too much of a political insider. Adding further intrigue to the race, the recent nomination of ultra-conservative Bishop E.W. Jackson as the GOP candidate for Lieutenant Governor has meant trouble for the Cuccinelli campaign.[i] Nevertheless, this race is still anyone’s game. Ken Cuccinelli has a number of devoted supporters who are very enthusiastic about his campaign; few would characterize Democratic enthusiasm for Terry McAuliffe as being as deep and wide.

So what do the 2012 Senate races (as the title of this piece suggests) have to do with the 2013 race for Virginia Governor? Let me explain. In four of these Senate races—Missouri, Indiana, Montana, and Ohio—a conservative-leaning (and with the exception of Ohio, Libertarian) third party candidate received between 4.5 and 7 percent of the vote of the vote. The presence of these conservative-leaning third party candidates on the ballot likely cost Republican candidates votes—and in the case of Montana, the presence of the Libertarian may have cost the race for Republican Denny Rehberg. (A Libertarian also pulled around 4.6 percent of the vote in the Arizona Senate race, although Republican Jeff Flake still defeated Democrat Richard Carmona.)

Like the aforementioned 2012 Senate races, the 2013 Virginia Governor’s race features a conservative-leaning third party candidate in addition to the two major party candidates. This candidate, Libertarian Robert Sarvis, could play the role of spoiler in this race by pulling a similar percentage of the vote as the conservative-leaning third party candidates in the 2012 Senate races.

There are several reasons to suspect that Sarvis could pull a similar percentage of the vote as his 2012 Senate race counterparts. First, according to recent polls both Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli have upside down favorability ratings with the overall electorate and also suffer from popularity issues within their own party. In other words, a substantial number of voters are ambivalent about both candidates and are thus still up for grabs.

Second, Mr. Sarvis represents a credible alternative for disaffected Republican voters and has the potential to pull votes away from Ken Cuccinelli. No other third party candidate appears on the ballot, so an equal threat does not exist for Terry McAuliffe. By any measure, Robert Sarvis is at least as credible as the 2012 Senate candidates who received between 4.5 and 7 percent of the vote in their respective races. Of note is the fact that Sarvis was the Republican nominee for State Senate in 2011 against Democratic State Senate Leader Dick Saslaw.

Sarvis may appeal to disaffected Republicans who do not want to vote for Ken Cuccinelli. Once again, this would be similar to 2012, where some Republicans could not bring themselves to vote for controversial nominees Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Todd Akin in Missouri. (The 2012 GOP candidates in Montana and Ohio, while conservative, were nowhere near as controversial as Mr. Akin and Mr. Mourdock).

Come Election Day 2013, history may repeat itself as Terry McAuliffe is elected Governor of Virginia with a plurality of the vote.  Here Montana may serve as the best guide to overall vote percentages; like Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), Terry McAuliffe may receive somewhere around 48 or 49 percent of the vote. While not a majority, this could be enough to win the election for Mr. McAuliffe if Robert Sarvis pulls several percentage points from Ken Cuccinelli and thus serves as a spoiler in this race.

[i] Note: In Virginia, unlike other states, the candidates for Governor and Lieutenant Governor run separate campaigns and thus do not appear together on the ballot as a ticket.

It Takes a Credible Candidate: Why Michigan is a More Likely Senate Flip than Iowa

Recently, I wrote a piece about the state of the 2014 races for the United States Senate. In my piece, I placed the states of Michigan and Iowa both under the category of “Open Seat Blue States.” While my categorization somewhat implies that these races are of equal competitiveness, this is not the case (or at least it no longer is the case). Due to developments over the past several weeks and months in these races, it has become clear that Michigan is somewhat more likely to flip to the Republican Party than is Iowa.

Initially, these races started out at roughly the same place; if anything, a case could have been made that Iowa was slightly more likely to flip to the GOP than was the Michigan seat. Both states featured a longtime Democratic senator who was retiring (Tom Harkin in Iowa and Carl Levin in Michigan). Both states also went for President Obama in both 2008 and 2012 (although George W. Bush won Iowa in 2004); in 2012 Mr. Obama won Iowa by a bit under 6 percent and Michigan by just over 9 percent. Furthermore, in both states, a Democratic member of Congress is running to replace the retiring senator, Gary Peters in Michigan and Bruce Braley in Iowa. Both of these Democratic members of Congress were first elected to their seats during the pro-Democratic waves of the 2000s; Braley in 2006 and Peters in 2008.

One slight difference between these two seats is the previous victory margins of the retiring incumbents. Generally, Senator Levin won reelection by a healthier victory margin than Senator Harkin. Indeed, the only time that Senator Harkin won reelection with more than 55 percent of the vote was in 2008. Overall, these results (as well as President Obama’s victory percentage in 2012) reflect the somewhat more favorable conditions for the Democratic Party in Michigan than in Iowa.

Contrary to expectations, however, it now appears that the Republican Party is in a better position to win the Michigan Senate race than they are to capture the seat in Iowa. In Iowa, potential candidate after potential candidate after potential candidate has said no to the GOP, including Representative Tom Latham (R-IA), Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, and Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz. Even Tea Party Representative Steve King (R-IA) (who may well have ended up as an Akin-esque disaster for the party) declined to run.

The candidates left as possibilities for the Iowa GOP simply do not have the standing of the aforementioned individuals who took a pass on the race. Former US Attorney Matt Whitaker and Ex-Chief of Staff to Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) David Young are running; State Senator Joni Ernst, ex-CEO Mark Jacobs, and College Professor Sam Clovis may also make the race.

While one of these candidates may end up proving to be a strong contender, the lack of a immediately credible candidate with prior experience in electoral politics in the Iowa race speaks volumes to its likelihood of this race ultimately being truly competitive. A February PPP Poll showed Braley leading even the strong potential candidates who declined to run; one can imagine his lead would be even greater against any of the weaker options mentioned above.

In contrast, Michigan Republicans have had at least some success at recruiting a credible candidate to run for the seat of retiring Senator Carl Levin (D-MI). Last week, former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land announced she would run and Congressman Mike Rogers might still run. A Michigan PPP Poll from last week showed Peters with only a 5 percentage point lead over Land (Rogers trailed by 10). While Michigan Republicans could certainly ruin their chances of winning this seat by nominating Tea Party Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) were he to run, either Land or Rogers would be credible candidates for the seat (although Rep. Peters would still be favored over either of them).

Yet despite the fact that the Michigan seat appears to have become a more likely pick-up for the GOP, national political prognosticators continue to rate the Iowa seat as a better prospect for Republicans than Michigan. The Cook Political Report rates the Iowa seat as a Toss-Up while rating Michigan as Leaning Democratic. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza ranks Iowa as the 8th most likely Senate seat to flip parties, while ranking Michigan as tied for 10th. Finally, the Rothenberg Political Report says that the Iowa seat is Lean Democratic and the Michigan seat is Currently Safe Democratic. (The one exception is Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball which rates both seats as Lean Democratic.)

Overall, Democrats are currently favored to retain both the Iowa and Michigan Senate seats. It is also clear at this point, however, that the GOP has a better chance to win Michigan than Iowa. While the dynamics surrounding these races may change (such as if Tom Latham were to reconsider his decision and run in Iowa), I will depart from the conventional wisdom to declare that Iowa really should be thought of as “Likely Democratic,” while Michigan should be thought of as “Lean Democratic.” The Iowa GOP’s inability to recruit a credible candidate has placed the party in a weak position to pick up a seat in the Hawkeye State. Thus, Michigan-with a credible GOP candidate in Terri Lynn Land-leaps over Iowa to become the 8th most likely seat to flip from Democratic to Republican in the next election.

[The states more likely to flip from Democratic to Republican in order are (in my opinion) South Dakota, West Virginia, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska, North Carolina, and Montana.]

(The title of this piece is a play on the title of Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox’s excellent book It Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run For Office.)

So why, really, is Congress broken?

In a recent Washington Post editorial, Robert G. Kaiser (author of the new book Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t) offers three reasons for why the institution of Congress is broken. In this piece, I critique each of these reasons in turn and also offer my view as to why Congress is broken. Finally, in conclusion, I discuss the role that cultural explanations have in explaining dysfunction in Congress.

Reason 1- Politics Trumps Policy:  More so than politics trumping policy, it seems that what Kaiser means is that partisan politics trumps policy. (After all, David Mayhew first described members of Congress as “single-minded seekers of reelection” almost forty years ago in his 1974 book Congress: The Electoral Connection. The idea that members of Congress care about reelection is well-established.) It is true that Congress has reached modern highs in polarization; helping one’s party “team” gain majority party status is one of four goals for members of Congress identified by Gary Cox and Mathew McCubbins that helps explain why members of Congress behave the way they do (the other goals are winning reelection, gaining power in the institution, and passing good public policy).

It is important to note that this critique does not offer an explanation for why politics has become increasingly partisan (as that would at least double the length of this already lengthy post!) nor do I assume that partisan politics is necessarily bad. (After all it was an era of relatively low partisanship that struggled mightily to pass civil rights legislation.) Instead, I dig right into the question of whether increased partisan politics explains dysfunction in Congress.

So, does increased partisan politics explain dysfunction in Congress? Yes and no. Increased partisan politics is to blame for “dysfunction” because our system as a whole and many of our governmental institutions individually are not designed to handle partisan politics. This line of reasoning is illustrated well by comparing the House and the Senate. The majoritarian House has generally done well at passing legislation in recent years. One might disagree with the outcome of this legislation, but the House has generally been able to get its work done (under both Democratic and Republican leadership). It is true that John Boehner has struggled to pass legislation more than other recent speakers due to dissent from the Tea Party Caucus, but the House has still generally been better able to pass legislation that the U.S. Senate.

The Senate, which relies upon rules based on consensus, has struggled mightily to pass legislation in recent years. Unique features of the Senate such as filibusters and unanimous consent agreements combine with deep-seeded ideological disagreements to result in an institution that has been unable to efficiently work through legislation. Furthermore, a system based on separation of powers with checks and balances has meant that gridlock is likely when different parties control different chambers of Congress or branches of the government.

In this sense, partisan politics trumping policy is related to dysfunction—but only in the context of our unique American institutions. Other systems- such as the British Parliament—are well equipped to deal with deeply ideological parties. Under a system of so-called “responsible party government,” parties run for office with distinctly different platforms and then enact them once they are elected to office. If votes dislike the outcome of those policies, they can throw out that party at the next election. In a sense, America now has the ideological parties that responsible party government demands, but (unlike Britain) lacks institutions that fit with ideological parties.

Furthermore (and most controversially), I posit that what sometimes appears to be a prioritization of politics over policy actual indirectly relates back to a broader concern for policy. Quite simply, there is a lot is at stake in having one’s party in control of government. Anyone who lives in a state where the party control of state government recently flipped (such as Wisconsin or North Carolina) certainly knows what I am talking about.

A unified Democratic government means more spending on education and other social services, more liberal social policy on issues like abortion and gay rights, quite possibly more restrictions on gun ownership, a more progressive tax system, and a number of other liberal policies. A unified Republican government means less spending on education and social services, more conservative social policy on issues like abortion and gay rights, fewer restrictions on gun ownership, tax cuts, and a number of other conservative policies.

As a result of the high stakes of partisan politics, parties have to constantly manage their party brand or image. This means disagreeing and fighting on issues that may not be directly ideological but that feed into the overall image of the party. By positioning itself well on both ideological and non-ideological issues to the greatest degree possible (while staying fairly true to its ideological dispositions), a party is in a stronger position to do well in the next election and then enact what that party views as good policy in the next session of the legislature (or more commonly block what the party views to be bad policy). (Note: This view differs from that presented by Frances Lee in her excellent book “Beyond Ideology.”)

Overall, there is something to Kaiser’s explanation of politics trumping policy; however, this explanation is far more complicated and nuanced than his explanation suggests.

Reason 2- Staffers Do Most of the Work: Congress is a huge institution with a myriad of responsibilities. As a result, a division of labor is necessary both in terms of members each serving on a few committees (or usually one in the House) and developing individual specialties, but also in terms of delegating a large amount of work to staff. It is not just Congress that does this; the Executive and Judicial Branches both rely on a large professional staff to carry out their responsibilities. Outside of government, big corporations like Google and Microsoft also rely on staff in order to be successful. CEOs and entrepreneurs at corporations like these simply do not have the time to be involved in the minutia of every decision that is made and thus are rationally ignorant of much of what goes on in their companies.

In the same vein, members of Congress are also rationally ignorant of much of the specifics of pieces of legislation. While it is popular to criticize members of Congress for not reading the bills that go before them, I imagine most voters would prefer their member to spend time dealing with casework or spending time meeting with constituents than reading every line of every bill. Rather than reading the bills, members of Congress are able to rely on cues—such as from specialists on relevant committees or party leaders— as a short cut so that they can vote the “right” way on a piece of legislation.

Before criticizing members of Congress for engaging in such behavior, voters may want to take a look in the mirror. After all, when is the last time most voters walked into the voting booth and knew the specific issue positions of every candidate on the ballot? (Again, rational ignorance!)

While it is true that members of Congress spend more and more time engaged in “call time” raising money, this really ties back to the increasing importance of majority party status in the institution. I will get into this reason more in my conclusion, but for the time being suffice it to say that having staffers do most of the work likely has little to do with the dysfunction we see in Congress.

Reason 3-Issues, even the big ones, are no longer really debated: As with the second reason (having staff do most of the work), the lack of debate in Congress likely has very little to do with dysfunction in the institution. At most, this reason is a symptom of the permanent campaign (which stems from the increased importance of partisan politics) rather than a reason unto itself.

This reason assumes that prolonged debate is necessarily beneficial—but history shows that this is not necessarily the case. In the years leading up to the Civil War, significant debate took place over slavery and similar topics. In the midst of one of these debates, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner was almost caned to death on the Senate floor by Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina.

If two groups disagree deeply about something, they are likely to continue to disagree whether they debate it for an hour or for a month. Having “serious philosophical debate” as Kaiser longs for is no guarantee for a well-functioning institution. If anything, it may only serve to exacerbate differences that already exist between parties. (Note: this is not to say that debate is bad, but merely that bringing back a culture of debate is not a panacea for ridding Congress of dysfunction.)

Conclusion: My objections to Kaiser’s reasoning should not be viewed as objections to the view that cultural explanations have something to do with the dysfunction of Congress. Other cultural explanations (for example, the lack of personal relationships between members of Congress) are more convincing than an increased reliance on staff or increased debate.

Overall, however, I generally view cultural explanations for the dysfunction of Congress to be proximate, but not ultimate causes for the dysfunction that exists in the chamber. In other words something else (such as increasing polarization) changed the culture of Congress which then caused dysfunction in the body.

My objections to his editorial notwithstanding, I look forward to reading Robert Kaiser’s new book and encourage others to do the same to get a detailed look inside the inner working of America’s legislative branch.


A Republican Senate Majority in 2014: So Close, But Yet so Far

In a recent article for the Rothenberg Political Report on the 2014 Senate elections, Nathan L. Gonzales argues that ”the road to the Republican Senate majority is easier than you think.” Gonzales correctly points out that Republicans do not have to win a seat in a single state won by President Obama in order to win a Senate majority and posits that Republicans “have considerable room for error” in winning a Senate majority.

In this post, I provide a different interpretation of what the national GOP lean of several of these states means for the Republican Party’s chances of winning a Senate majority in 2014. Despite the fact that seven Democratic-held Senate races will take place in states won by Mitt Romney, winning a Senate majority will be an uphill battle for the GOP and the party of Lincoln has little room for error in constructing this majority.

The difficulty Republicans face at winning a Senate majority can best be illustrated in a race-by-race examination of the seats Democrats must defend in 2014. When examining potential Republican gains in the Senate, I divide possible pick ups into five categories: “Likely GOP Flips” (SD, WV), “Incumbents in Serious Trouble” (AR, LA, AK), “Democrats’ Red State Firewall” (NC, MT), “Open Seat Blue States” (MI, IA), “Potentially Competitive Blue States” (NH, MN, CO). (Although the New Jersey seat is open, that state appears unlikely to flip to the Republican Party. For the purposes of this piece, I also assume that Democrats do not gain a single seat currently held by Republicans.)

Likely GOP Flips: The retirements of Democratic Senators Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Tim Johnson (D-SD) place these seats in serious peril for the Democratic Party. As Democrats have not yet recruited a strong candidate for either of these red state races (indeed former Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin announced last week that she won’t run for the seat). have strong candidates running in both states in former Governor Mike Rounds (R-SD) and Representative Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV).

Republicans could, as in the past, blow these fairly easy pick up opportunities by nominating too conservative candidates in primaries. For example, in the West Virginia race Shelly Moore Capito, who is pro-choice on abortion rights and holds a fairly moderate DW-Nominate score of 0.256, could be vulnerable should a credible challenge from a Tea Party candidate emerge. However, Democrats would still need a credible candidate in order to take advantage of such a situation (such as West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant).

The South Dakota race could get more interesting if either Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD) or Democratic US Attorney (and son of the Senator) Brendan Johnson decides to jump in the race.

For the time being, however, let us assume that Republicans win both of these seats.

Incumbents in Serious Trouble: Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alaska all voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008 by double digits. These states are all home to vulnerable Democratic incumbents; in my opinion, the vulnerability of these seats is in the order they are listed above. (Also, interestingly, the fathers of all three of these Senators— David Pryor , Moon Landrieu , and Nick Begich —were accomplished politicians in their own right.)

Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR) faces a double threat: a state that is moving away from his party and a potential opponent with an impressive resume in Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR). While the strong brand name surrounding the Pryor name may allow the Senator to win reelection—particularly if a strong candidate such as Tom Cotton declines to run—Pryor faces an uphill battle to win reelection.

Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) also hails from a conservative southern state and has a strong opponent in Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA). In three elections to the Senate, Landrieu has never won with more than 52 percent of the vote. I consider Landrieu to be slightly more likely to win reelection than Pryor due to the fact that Louisiana has a larger African-American population than Arkansas and has a larger core of strong Democrats than the Natural State.

New Orleans (whose mayor is Sen. Landrieu’s brother Mitch Landrieu) is also a Democratic stronghold; no comparable Democratic stronghold exists in Arkansas. Finally, of note is the fact that the November election in Louisiana is actually a jungle primary; if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote then the top two candidates (of any party) advance to a December election. As a result, if multiple Republicans decide to run, it is possible that this race may not be decided until December 2014.

Finally the likely opponent of Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) is Republican Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell (R-AK) who also boasts impressive credentials. I rate this state as least likely to flip of these three mostly due to the possibility of a Tea Party challenge that could derail Treadwell’s candidacy, such as from 2010 Senate candidate Joe Miller. It is also important to note that Alaska has the third highest percentage of union members of any state and the state does not have a right-to-work law. While Alaska itself is quite rural, about two-fifths of its 731,000 people live in the city of Anchorage (population 291,000). (Mark Begich was mayor of Anchorage before being elected to the Senate in 2008). While Senator Begich is certainly in danger of losing reelection, he has a fighting chance to retain this seat.

For the time being, however, let us also assume that Republicans gain these three seats as well. This would put the Senate at 50-50.

Democrats’ Red State Firewall: Although both Montana and North Carolina went for Mitt Romney in 2012, winning either of these states presents a considerable challenge for the GOP.

While Mitt Romney won Montana by 14 points in 2012, Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) also won reelection to a second term. Democrats commonly win state-level  elections in Montana; for example Democrat Steve Bullock was elected Governor of Montana in 2012 and Democrat Denise Juneau was reelected as the Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2012. In other words, the vote for Republican presidential candidates in Montana exaggerates the Republican lean of the state in other races.

To fill the Senate being vacated by Senator Max Baucus, Democrats also have a strong potential candidate in former Governor Brian Schweitzer. Even if Schweitzer does not run, the aforementioned Denise Juneau would be a credible candidate. In contrast, the Republican bench in Montana is surprisingly weak: speculation has surrounded former Rep. (and two-time Senate loser) Denny Rehberg (R-MT), former Governor and lobbyist Marc Racicot (R-MT), and  Rep. Steve Daines (R-MT) (who wants to avoid becoming the next Rick Berg).

For Republicans, winning the Montana Senate seat is easier said than done and requires several lucky breaks for the party. (Such as having Schweitzer pass on the race and convincing Racicot to run.)

The same is true of North Carolina. Ancestrally Democratic at the state level, President Obama won the Tar Heel State in 2008 and only lost by 2 percent in 2012.  While NC Republicans are at a high point in control of state government since Reconstruction, there is no guarantee a strong GOP challenger to Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) will emerge.

Speculation on who will run has centered on House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-NC)Senate President Phil Berger (R-NC), and  Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC). While legislative leaders Tillis and Berger seem like strong candidates on paper, the North Carolina legislature suffers from low favorability ratings and has become a punch line for late-night comedians due to some of the proposals put forward by conservative legislators. While another candidate like Rep. Renee Ellmers would not have this state-level baggage, defeating a decently popular incumbent like Senator Hagan is always difficult.

Overall, Senator Hagan has done well in fundraising and has a considerable base of support in the Research Triangle and other North Carolina cities; the GOP lean of North Carolina is slight enough that the senator has to be considered at least a narrow favorite for reelection at this point.

Open Seat Blue States: While the retirements of longtime Democratic Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Carl Levin (D-MI), these two Senate seats initially looked potentially competitive. However, Republicans haven’t recruited a strong candidate in either state yet; in Iowa a number of high profile candidates have said no to the race. Michigan Republicans hope to recruit Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI); if Rogers does not make the race MI Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land  is likely to run.

Regardless of who runs on the Republican side, Democrats have strong candidates in both states: Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) and  Rep. Gary Peters (D-MI). The Democratic lean of both states, along with the lack of a strong Republican candidate in either state makes both of these races long shots (at least for the time being) for the GOP.

Potentially Competitive Blue States: The states of Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Colorado went for President Obama by mid-single digits in 2012 and all feature first term Democratic Senators seeking reelection. Polls from Public Policy Polling show all of these Democrats (Sens. Franken, Shaheen, and Udall) have decently strong favorability ratings and a strong Republican challenger has not yet emerged in any of these states. It will be an uphill battle for Republicans to win any of these states.

Overall, it will be difficult for Republicans to pick up Senate seats in states won by President Obama in 2012. Furthermore, the states of Montana and North Carolina will be more difficult for Republicans to win than initially appears to be the case when looking at the vote of these two states for president in 2012.

Therefore, even if Republicans sweep the other five races in states won by Mitt Romney—South Dakota, West Virginia, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alaska—(which isn’t a guarantee) then the GOP will only achieve a tie in the Senate (which would be broken by Vice President Joe Biden). This also assumes that Democrats do not pick up any seats from the GOP (Georgia and Kentucky are outside opportunities for the party).

So while the Republican Party certainly might win control of the Senate in the November 2014 elections, winning such a majority will not be easy. Come Election Day 2014, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) might feel a lot like Sisyphus as the party once again falls just short at winning the Senate majority despite conventional wisdom in the months before the election.


Did Under Voting Cost Mount Vernon Schools the November Levy Election? (Part Two)

In my first post on under voting in Knox County, Ohio, I introduced the concept of under voting and discussed patterns of under voting in races in Knox County involving candidates. I found that the Gambier precincts exhibited levels of under voting that were below the Knox County norm in the presidential race, but that under voting rates in Gambier were much higher than the Knox County norm in other races down ballot.

This piece examines the effect of under voting on an issue race, focusing on the Knox County School Levy election that took place on November 6, 2012.

The Mount Vernon School Levy failed narrowly on November 6th, losing by a margin of 6813 votes in favor (49.3%) to 7014 votes against (50.7%). Had the levy gotten 202 more votes (a tie results in a loss), it would have passed. In the Gambier precincts, 241 votes or ~18.1% of votes cast were under votes. In the non-Gambier precincts, 390 votes or ~3.2% of all votes cast were under votes.

So, getting back to the central question, did the high rate of under voting in the Gambier precincts cost Mount Vernon Schools the November Levy Election? The answer to that question, of course, is complicated. Below, I will examine four alternative scenarios, each of which results in a slightly different answer.

Scenario One- Everyone votes, under voters all vote for the levy: This scenario, while perhaps unrealistic, is the most optimistic for the levy. Had the under voters in Gambier all voted for the levy, the levy would have passed by a margin of 7054 votes to 7014 votes (pending automatic recount). This scenario, however, is probably overly optimistic; unless the school levy could have generated the sort of enthusiasm as Barack Obama, it is at least somewhat unreasonable to expect that there would be no under votes at all in this race. It is also somewhat optimistic for the levy to assume that all under voters would vote for the levy if they had cast ballots.

Scenario Two- Everyone votes, under voters support levy at rate of voters: What if one assumes that everyone votes, but that the under voters support the levy at the same rate as those who already voted? This may be a more reasonable assumption than assuming that every under voter would naturally support the levy. In the Gambier precincts, 91.2% of voters supported the school levy. Had 91.2% of the under voters supported the school levy, the levy would have gotten approximately 220 more yes votes for a total of 7033 yes votes. However, under this assumption, approximately 21 of the under voters (~8.8%) would have voted no, giving the no side a total of 7035 no votes. Under this scenario, the levy would have failed by three (!) votes (a tie results in a loss). Obviously, the levy would have gone to recount under this scenario; the only thing that would be sure under this scenario is a lengthy legal battle.

Scenario Three- Under voting falls to norm outside Gambier, under voters support levy at rate of voters: The assumption that everyone votes is also somewhat optimistic; after all outside of the Gambier (and College Township) precincts there was some under voting in this race. If we reduce under voting in this race to the non-Gambier average of 3.2%, this means that ~43 under votes would still have been cast in this race, thus meaning that 198 fewer under votes would have been cast. By allocating these under votes in the same way as the formula in Scenario Two, 6994 total votes (increase of 181) would have been cast for the levy and 7031 votes would have been cast against the levy. As a result, the levy would have needed 38 more yes votes to pass under this scenario; however, as with the previous scenario, this result falls within the 0.5% margin to trigger an automatic recount in a local, county, or municipal election.

Scenario Four- Relaxing the Assumptions of Scenarios Two and Three: While the assumptions in Scenario One were likely too loose, the assumptions in Scenarios Two and Three may be too rigid. (Goldilocks had a similar problem with temperature and pudding!) In Scenario Two, I used the 91.2% support rate among all voters. However, it is likely that most of the under voters were Kenyon students as opposed to year-round Gambier townspeople (who make up a small portion of the Gambier vote). I also suspect that Kenyon-affiliated people may have supported the levy at a slightly higher rate than the year-round Gambier townspeople (although support must have been widespread in the village among all residents for the levy to get 91.2% of the vote). Therefore, I average Scenario 1 and Scenario 2 and say that 95.6% of under voters would support the levy.

Let me also relax the assumption of under voting- what if under voting in Gambier took place at a rate of 1.6% in the school levy election, half the 3.2% average for non-Gambier precincts? After all, the Gambier precincts showed in the presidential race that their voters are quite adept at filling out ballots when they want to make their voices heard. Is this assumption reasonable? Perhaps.

Under the relaxed assumption about under voting, ~220 under voters would be converted into voters. Using the assumption of 95.6% support for the levy, I find that supporters would gain ~210 votes and opponents would gain ~10 votes. As a result, the levy would have received 7023 votes in favor and 7024 against, failing by only two (!) votes (again, tie=loss). Once again, the election would have been decided by a recount.

So did under voting cost Mount Vernon Schools the November 2012 election? The answer to that question is a definitive “maybe.” That all depends on a.) which of the above scenarios one finds most convincing and b.) what one assumes would have happened in a recount.

The only other conclusion that can draw is that, had a lower rate of under voting taken place, the election administrator’s prayer most certainly would not have been answered. Most likely a lengthy recount process would have taken place that may have dragged on for weeks if not months.



Patterns of Under Voting in Gambier and the rest of Knox County, Ohio (Part One)

Among residents of Knox County, Ohio, the political differences between Gambier (home of Kenyon College) and the rest of the county are well-known. Gambier is populated by generally liberal students and faculty who (mostly) vote Democratic; Michelle Obama even visited the Kenyon campus in 2012. In contrast, the rest of the county is largely filled with generally conservative voters who tend to vote Republican. Indeed, 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney held a campaign event at the Ariel Corporation in Mount Vernon. Overall, Knox County voted for Governor Romney over President Obama by a 61 to 37 percent margin. Outside of Gambier and surrounding College Township, President Obama won the most votes in only one precinct (there was a tie in another precinct).

Using precinct-level data from the Knox County Board of Elections, this post focuses on another noticeable difference in voting patterns that exists between Gambier and the rest of Knox County: the extent to which “under voting” takes place in various contests. According to Wikipedia, an “under vote” occurs when, “the number of choices selected by a voter in a contest is less than the maximum number allowed for that contest or when no selection is made for a single choice contest.”

A close look at the Knox County Board of Elections website reveals an interesting pattern when one examines under voting by precinct. In the 2012 presidential race, not a single “presidential under vote” was cast in either Gambier precinct (the surrounding College Township precinct also saw no under votes). What makes this so interesting? In the rest of the county every other precinct had at least one under vote in the race for president.  Indeed, 213 votes (~0.8% of all votes cast) in the rest of the county were under votes.

What makes this pattern even more remarkable is that it begins to reverse itself in other races down ballot. Outside of the race for president, the under vote rate in Gambier exceeded the norm for the rest of the county.

For example:

  • In the Senate Race between Senator Sherrod Brown (D) and State Treasurer Josh Mandel (R), there were 87 under votes in Gambier or ~6.5% of all votes cast. Outside of the Gambier precincts, there were 619 under votes or ~2.3% of all votes cast.
  • In the House Race between Representative Bob Gibbs (R) and Challenger Joyce Healy-Abrams, there were 140 under votes in Gambier or ~10.5% of all votes cast. Outside of the Gambier precincts, there were 1360 under votes or ~5% of all votes cast. This despite the fact that the only debate between Gibbs and Healy-Abrams was actually held at Kenyon College in Gambier!
  • In the “Nonpartisan” State Supreme Court Race between Incumbent Robert Cupp (“R”) and Challenger Bill O’Neill (“D”), there were 730 under votes or ~54.8% (!) of all votes cast. Outside of the Gambier precincts, there were 6453 under votes or ~23.6% of all votes cast. (Note: I called this race “nonpartisan” due to the fact that, although no partisan labels appear on ballots, candidates are nominated through partisan primaries.)
  • The pattern is similar in other races down ballot.

So what implications can be drawn from this?

Here are three initial takeaways:

  • The Power of the Obama Campaign: Young voters really connected with President Obama and his campaign did a great job of reaching out to these voters and getting them to turn out to the polls. These voters were excited to vote for President Obama and filled out their ballots in such a way as to act on this excitement. This excitement about voting for President Obama, however, did not represent increased loyalty to the Democratic Party as a whole; this was made clear in the 2010 midterms as turnout among young voters remained relatively constant with historical patterns and did not experience any noticeable surge.
  • Importance of Partisan Cues: The substantial drop off that took place in the Gambier precincts for the State Supreme Court race underscores the odd things that can happen in ostensibly non-partisan judicial races. While some Kenyon students were willing to vote for a candidate with a “D” next to their name, they weren’t about to go searching for the partisan affiliation of a non-partisan candidate. (Good work on non-partisan judicial elections is being done by University of Pittsburgh Professor Chris Bonneau and UNC Graduate Student John Lappie.)
  • Under voting isn’t a liberal thing, it’s a college student thing: While under voting rates were above average in the Gambier precincts, this was not the case in the College Township Precinct. Home to some Kenyon employees, College Township has an ever-so-slight Democratic tilt. Furthermore, under voting in College Township was in line with the rates for the rest of the county. For example, 5 voters or ~2.2% under voted in the U.S. Senate race between Senator Brown and State Treasurer Mandel in College Township.

These implications are certainly not the only ones that can (or should) be drawn from this data. Indeed, the next post in this series will examine the practical implications of under voting for low turnout races, focusing specifically on the Mount Vernon School Levy.

Paul Ryan in 2016?: “Well that’s not going to happen.”

To commemorate the release of Paul Ryan’s third budget, I will continue my series of reviewing potential 2016 presidential contenders with the Congressman from Wisconsin’s First District. As the Republican candidate for Vice President in 2012, Mr. Ryan will certainly be discussed as a potential candidate for the presidency in 2016. I argue, however, that in the case of Mr. Ryan, not unlike Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), the hype is bigger than the reality. Below are five reasons that contribute to this logic:

1. House members rarely win presidential elections. Remember the last person to be elected president directly from the House? Probably not, seeing as it was Ohio Congressman James Garfield (R-OH) in 1880. The only other sitting member of the House to win a major party nomination was Congressman Henry Clay (W-KY) in 1824. There is a reason that House members rarely win presidential nominations: House members must appeal to narrow, parochial interests in their districts while presidential candidates must appeal to broad interests in order to win the country as a whole in a presidential election (or at least enough of the country to lock up 270 electoral votes). In addition, House members have a clear record to attack, but lack the prestige and gravitas of a senator. While Mr. Ryan has started to appeal to a more national audience with the release of his budgets and selection as the vice presidential candidate in 2012, those two things create their own problems (as I will describe below).

2. Failed VP nominees rarely succeed in future elections. Sarah Palin, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, Jack Kemp. What do these failed VP nominees have in common? None of them had particularly successful political careers after failing to win the vice presidency. Mr. Kemp and Ms. Palin did not again seek elective office after losing the vice presidency and Mr. Lieberman and Mr. Edwards did not even place in the top two for the Democratic nomination in (respectively) 2004 and 2008. One potential reason as to why the vice presidential nomination is not a springboard to a future presidential nomination may be a desire from the losing party to disassociate itself with the losing team from the previous election. Whatever the reason, it is clear that a failed VP nomination does not offer clear benefit in the next presidential election.

3. He’s too liberal (on immigration). With his announcement that he would support Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) immigration plan, Ryan has staked out a perilous position for running in the Iowa caucuses. As I previously wrote when discussing Mr. Rubio’s prospects for 2016, being seen as “soft on immigration” is a problematic when running in the Iowa caucuses. With Jeb Bush’s recent pivot on immigration and likely candidacies from conservative individuals such as Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), Ryan’s position on immigration will likely prove an easy target from these other candidates. Although Mr. Rubio, as a leader on this issue, is likely to face the majority of attacks from other candidates on this issue, Mr. Ryan’s position will (at the least) prove unhelpful in the Iowa Caucuses.

4. His budget provides an easy target. This reason applies more to the general election than the primaries, but it illustrates why congressmen (as well as senators) have such difficulty getting elected president. By having staking out specific positions on issues, members of Congress open themselves open to attacks from other candidates in presidential campaigns. As chairman of the Budget Committee, Ryan has gotten extremely specific in his budgets. As such, Ryan has put forward a number of proposals that (even beyond his famous Medicare plan) prove quite controversial.

5. He’s too conservative to win a general election. With a DW-Nominate Score of 0.574 . Mr. Ryan is even slightly to the right of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). As I discussed a month ago, Mr. Rubio would be the most ideological nominee since 1964 nominee “Mr. Conservative” Barry Goldwater (R-AZ).  For the reasons I discussed in my Rubio post, Mr. Ryan is too conservative to win a general election. As a result, Mr. Ryan would face an uphill battle to win a general election despite the fact that the country may be ready to turn to a Republican Commander in Chief in 2016 after 8 years of Barack Obama.

[Note: The title of this post is based on Chris Wallace’s response to Mr. Ryan that his budget proposal assumes a repeal of “Obamacare.” Mr. Wallace was not rating Mr. Ryan's prospects for 2016 in these comments.]