Margin of Σrror

Margin of Σrror -

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.


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.

For It While They Were Against It

Sometimes, people respond in strange ways to survey questions.

For a recent project with Jim Stimson and Elizabeth Coggins, I spent a fair amount of time analyzing data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES). Here’s a fun nugget from my exploration: a sizable proportion (21 percent) of respondents both support and oppose Obamacare. Simultaneously.

We can speculate wildly about why a fifth of respondents — in a sample that is disproportionately educated and interested in politics! — would give such a puzzling answer.

But in a bigger sense, surveys — as useful as they are — offer highly artificial settings where respondents will give answers. Not attitudes, nor opinions, nor preferences per se — just answers. We should keep that in mind before reading too much into public opinion reports.

The Conflict

Part of the CCES comprises a set of “roll call” votes. These present respondents with a policy position and require a simple yea/nay answer. Two of these questions ask about the Affordable Care Act: one asks the respondent to vote for or against Obamacare, the second asks respondents to vote for or against repealing Obamacare.

There is a logical connection between these two questions. In general, someone who wants to repeal the law would probably not vote for it; and those who want to keep the law around should vote for it to begin with.

Generally that works… but as the ‘jitter’ plot shows above, it doesn’t work that way for everyone. Each dot on the figure represents a single respondent. (I like imagining that I’m assigning people to stand in a corner of the room depending on their answers to questions. Maybe I have a power complex…) There are clearly a good number of respondents in two quadrants: those who either support Obamacare and want to keep it, and those who oppose Obamacare and want to repeal it. Makes sense.

But who are those respondents in the other two quadrants? Slightly more than 12 percent of them want to repeal Obamacare, despite saying that they would vote for the bill; and 9 percent would vote against the bill, but wouldn’t repeal it.

The latter group — the Vote Against / Don’t Repeal group — may be reasoning through the path dependency of Obamacare. Something like, “Well, I don’t like it, but it would endanger the health care system to repeal it now.” Or maybe they’re just ardent believers in the Democratic process: elected officials passed the bill, any who would I be to usurp them? I doubt either of these stories, but it’s not impossible.

The other group — the Vote For / Repeal It! group — is weirder, though. There’s really no logical connection between the two answers.

Surveys are weird…

Well, they are! Despite having used public opinion data in research for several years now, I took my first “real” political survey over the winter holidays. Gallup called and wanted to talk to me about global warming, and that sounded like fun.

It wasn’t. First, you get pretty tired of answering questions after the first twenty. Second, even as a well-educated, highly-informed and engaged observer of the political world, the survey made me feel dumb. There’s this unusual pressure in a survey to answer questions promptly, which is fine but sometimes you don’t have an easy answer right at the top of your mind. Besides, these issues are complicated! Global warming? Economics? Coal, nuclear, wind, oil? Health care mandates?

Stressed yet? Even informed and engaged respondents get a bit overwhelmed by the survey items, and by the need to provide clean answers to complicated questions. And sometimes the questions aren’t entirely clear. Are we asking if you would have voted for Obamacare back in 2010? Or would you vote for it today? Do some respondents miss the “repeal” part of the question? These are all possible points of confusion, introduced in a highly artificial environment, but for which it’s impossible to test without a specific instrument.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth about polls: we use them because they’re what we have. On many questions, they’re good for giving the general feeling in the public. “Will you vote for Mitt Romney, the Republican, or Barack Obama, the Democrat?” isn’t terribly difficult, and most respondents can give a decent answer.

But as the questions become more complicated, responses become less reliable. Accessing “true” attitudes on policy questions with a survey can sometimes be like removing a splinter from your finger with an axe:  In a sense it works, but it’s awfully messy.

And it gets messier when we try drawing relationships between multiple items, all of which have some weird characteristics, like non attitudes, weak attitudes, and non response. Aggregating to reduce the high dimensionality of multiple responses can help filter out some of the noise, but that’s a topic for another post.

Pundits and commentators roll out polls daily to elicit support for some position or another. Being an informed consumer of surveys means going beyond “What’s the Margin of Error?” (We are the Margin of Error, duh!)

It means realizing that a fair number of responses might carry little objective meaning. When pressed I’ll answer, but I honestly don’t know, don’t care or haven’t quite figured out my views yet. Treating these responses as some true-to-life measure of how the American people feel, or how they’ll act, can go pretty far afield.


Note: The CCES sample above is limited to the UNC module of 1,000 respondents. Expanding this to the full CCES sample of 55k+ doesn’t change anything, though, but does make the figure a bit messier.

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.]

Bill and Claire’s Unconstitutional Adventure

“No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”

-The 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1992)

Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) introduced a bill today that would force members of Congress to take pay cuts equal to the cuts affecting other government agencies under sequestration. This proposal is likely to be hugely popular with the American people. What’s the problem with this plan? It’s clearly unconstitutional, as well as simply being a bad idea.

The 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (posted above) makes it unconstitutional for congressional pay to be changed until an election has taken place. While ratified in 1992, this amendment was originally proposed as part of the Bill of Rights and was supported by James Madison.

Madison supported this amendment because he did not want members to vote themselves a huge pay raise before the voters were allowed a chance to register their approval or disapproval of Congress. To quote Madison, “there is a seeming impropriety in leaving any set of men without control to put their hand into the public coffers, to take out money to put in their pockets.”

This amendment also protects members of Congress who express minority opinions on legislation or nominations. Imagine this scenario: The majority in Congress wants to pass a bill that it has the votes for, but it wants to look bipartisan in passing the bill. The speaker goes to the minority leader and says, “Have your members vote yes on my bill or we will vote to cut the pay of minority party members by half.” Seem implausible? Maybe, but the 27th Amendment is an important protection against the tyranny of the majority.

In addition to being unconstitutional, cutting the pay of members of Congress is a misplaced (albeit popular) reform. While the $174,000 salary that members of Congress receive is certainly a decent salary, it is not excessive if one considers the other potential job options for members of Congress. Who can forget the million dollars that former-Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) has been offered to run the Heritage Foundation? Dozens of other examples exist of members getting huge pay raises to work as lobbyists or other positions in the private sector after leaving Congress.

As the old saying goes, “You get what you pay for.” If you offer second rate pay to members of Congress, you will get second rate members. (Yes, even worse than now!) In other words, there needs to be a competitive salary for members of Congress in order to maximize the probability of attracting high quality individuals to the job.

Furthermore, if the pay of members of Congress is cut too much, then serving in Congress will become even more difficult for middle and lower income Americans than it is now. Members of Congress have to maintain two residences and must have an extensive professional wardrobe (among other living expenses beyond that of the average American). This isn’t a problem if you are one of the 50 richest members of Congress, but if you are a clean energy expert/advocate,  high school teacher, or farmer/gospel music singer then a drastic pay cut might make it financially difficult to serve in Congress. At the very least, such an individual would be unable to build a financial nest egg in case of an election loss, which would disincentivize them from running in the first place.

All in all, a substantial pay cut for members of Congress would serve to make the membership of Congress even less economically representative of the country as a whole than it is now. While some people might be willing to take significant financial sacrifices to serve in Congress, enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.

In conclusion, even if you don’t agree that Mr. Nelson and Ms. McCaskill’s proposal is a bad idea, it is clear that it is unconstitutional. And when laws are legitimately unconstitutional, the Supreme Court has a way of striking that whole thing down.

[Note: The title of the article is a pun on the movie“Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” The final line of this piece is a (hopefully satirical) reference to Rep. Todd Akin’s disastrous comments about “legitimate rape” in the 2012 election.]

Jeb Bush in 2016? Not as Crazy as it Seems.

A few weeks ago, I argued that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) was not well placed to win the Republican nomination (and especially the general election) in 2016. In the months (and years) to come, I plan to review the prospects for other potential candidates to win their party’s nomination and ultimately the White House.

This piece focuses on Jeb Bush’s chances of winning in 2016, following his recent announcement that he now opposes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. I take this reversal of positions for Mr. Bush to be an indication that he is seriously considering a run for the White House in 2016.

I come to this conclusion based on the following logic: If Mr. Bush is NOT considering running, what incentive is there to come out against a legal path to citizenship at this point in time, when such an announcement could negatively affect the current effort at achieving any reform? (Remember, Mr. Bush did not come out against all immigration reform, just reform that includes a path to citizenship.) Mr. Bush’s announcement could have the effect of impeding any bill from passing. Therefore, Mr. Bush must assume that their is something to be achieved by switching positions (i.e. being better positioned to run for president in 2016.) In other words, it simply does not make sense for Mr. Bush to make such an announcement unless he is considering running for president in 2016.

In this post, I compare Mr. Bush to Mr. Rubio on each of the points I emphasized in the last article, arguing that Mr. Bush is better placed to win the nomination (and the general) in 2016 than Mr. Rubio. Then, I will discuss a final caveat that relates to Mr. Bush’s prospects in 2016.


1. Too liberal (on immigration)?: With his recent announcement that he opposes citizenship for undocumented immigrants, Mr. Bush has placed himself to the right of Mr. Rubio (as well as Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan) on this issue which is of great importance in the Iowa caucuses. Yet Mr. Bush did not rule out other legal statuses for undocumented immigrants, allowing him to pivot back to the center should he win the GOP nomination. (Whether a stance that falls short of citizenship is centrist enough for a general election is debatable.) As I discuss in a later section, Mr. Bush’s ideology is one of a mainstream conservative. With this announcement on immigration, he has moved away from the one stance he held that was a deal-breaker for many conservative caucusgoers in the Hawkeye State. Indeed, making this announcement three years before the caucuses looks more like principle than opportunism than if Bush made the announcement after a (possible) failure of the current reform effort.

2. Primary schedule: While members of the Bush family have struggled in the New Hampshire primary in the past, the South Carolina primary gave George W. Bush a needed victory over Senator John McCain (R-AZ) in 2000. The primary schedule is most favorable to Mr. Bush not due to the placement of specific contests, but rather due to the fact that he would have access to the funds needed to wage a long, drawn-out primary campaign. As the son and brother of former presidents, Mr. Bush could build a campaign apparatus that could compete in every state. In the last primary campaign, one of the “non-Romney” candidates’ biggest problems was raising enough money to compete in a several month long campaign.

3. Scandal/Corruption: This category is most important to Mr. Bush in that his access to financial resources would allow him to exploit the weaknesses of his opponents, including Mr. Rubio. It was the famed Republican operative Lee Atwater who ran Mr. Bush’s father’s campaign and it is hard to forget the negative messaging that John McCain faced in the 2000 South Carolina primary. In other words, the Bushes (and their supporters) know that politics ain’t beanbag.

4. It is his (Bush’s) turn: Either a Bush or a Dole was on the ballot for the Republican Party for the president or vice president in every election from 1976 to 2004. It’s Jeb’s turn because it is (almost) always a Bush’s turn. Furthermore, in every presidential election since 1964 the Republicans have nominated someone who has run for president before, with the lone exception of 2000 when the GOP nominated George W. Bush. (Indeed, there was no viable GOP candidate in 2000 that had run for president before.)

The Republican Party is like that person who always orders the same thing every time they go to a restaurant. Republicans (particularly party elders) like orderly politics because it is, well, conservative. While George W. Bush had a less-than-ideal last few years in office, the Bush name still goes a long way with GOP primary regulars.

General Election:

5. Too conservative for the general?: Unfortunately, DW-Nominate scores do not exist for governors, so we cannot make a direct ideological comparison to Mr. Rubio, Mr. Ryan, or Mr. Paul. However, Nate Silver of the New York Times has suggested a way to calculate the ideology of governors based on issue positions listed on the website While admittedly a crude metric, one can use scores on individual issues on this website to calculate a rough estimate of where each governor stands and how they compare to their fellow governors, which can then be converted to a 100 point scale (where 0 is most liberal and 100 is most conservative).

Using this method, I find that Mr. Bush scores in the mid-80s (out of 100). Compared to other current or recent Republican governors, Mr. Bush is at the middle of the pack. He is certainly not as conservative as someone like Rick Scott (also of Florida) who scores a 91, but is more conservative than (former Governor) Mitch Daniels of Indiana who scores a 74.

In many ways, a good way to think about Mr. Bush ideologically is by using his brother as a proxy. In other words, Mr. Bush is a certainly a conservative, but is not completely outside the mainstream of American politics. While the country has certainly changed since 2000 and 2004, it is likely that Mr. Bush would at least be competitive in a general election. After eight years of a Democratic President, the nation may once again turn to a Bush. At the very least, Bush stands a better chance in a general election than Marco Rubio, who is clearly to the right of even most Republican politicians on most issues (not to mention the broader electorate).


6. Is Bush too stale? If anything holds back Mr. Bush from winning in 2016, it is more likely than not a staleness of the Bush brand and the fact that Mr. Bush has passed his (political) prime. Having left the Florida Governorship in 2007, Mr. Bush would have been out of elective office for almost a decade come 2016. This is certainly a concern and may be the biggest factor preventing a Bush candidacy. Overall, Mr. Bush stands a better chance than Mr. Rubio to win the Republican nomination and also would be in a stronger position to win a general election.

Will America elect a third Bush to the White House? With Mr. Bush’s recent switch on immigration, which indicates he may actually want to run, along with his overall strength as a candidate, such an occurrence is a real possibility.

5 Reasons Why Marco Rubio won’t win in 2016

This evening, a strong contender for the Republican nomination in 2016 will give a response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address. His Name is Rand Paul.

To some, this statement may seem surprising; after all the media has already crowded Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) the GOP frontrunner for 2016. Rubio appears on this week’s cover of Time Magazine as the “Republican Savior” and has also been crowned the new leader of the GOP by the Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza. However, for the five reasons I explain below, Rubio faces long odds at winning the Republican nomination in 2016, much less the White House.

This piece will focus on why Rubio is an unlikely nominee in 2016, but will also briefly contend that another “outsider” such as Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) would have a better chance at overcoming past trends and winning the GOP nomination than Rubio (although neither candidate would have much chance of winning the general election). (Note: Harry Enten makes a similar argument as to why Mr. Rubio won’t be elected president in 2016 here.)

The Primaries:

  • He’s too liberal (on immigration): As I will explain below under “he’s too conservative,” Marco Rubio would likely be the most conservative nominee since Barry Goldwater in 1964. However, Rubio is too liberal (or at least perceived as too liberal) on the exact wrong issue for a Republican candidate: immigration. Political observers will remember that Mitt Romney, while viewed as the “moderate” candidate on many issues in the 2012 primary field, ran hard right on immigration. Romney targeted primary opponents Governor Rick Perry (R-TX) and ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) as too soft on immigration, while he made statements about “self-deportation.”
    Immigration’s importance as an issue in the Republican primary looms large due to the placement of Iowa as the first contest during the primaries. Home to anti-illegal immigration crusader Rep. Steve King (R-IA), the Republican caucuses are a hotbed for the anti-immigration sentiments. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), having just supported a failed immigration reform effort, came in fourth place in the Iowa Caucuses in 2008. While the fate of the current effort to reform immigration is unknown at this time, whatever happens bodes ill for Rubio in Iowa. In the eyes of the anti-immigration activists, either 1) he will be the candidate who gave 11 million illegals amnesty or 2) it will be necessary to defeat him so he cannot enact amnesty if he becomes president. It is a lose, lose situation for Rubio. And, as I explain below, Rubio cannot fall back on New Hampshire to restart his campaign like John McCain did in 2008.


  • The primary schedule is stacked against him: As Hillary Clinton would tell you, order matters when it comes to the primary schedule. As I discussed above, Iowa is a poor fit for Rubio. However, New Hampshire is not much better for the junior senator from Florida. In the three most recent contested GOP primaries in the Granite State, New Hampshire went for the more centrist candidate on the ballot (McCain, McCain, Romney), and before that went for an anti-free trade, anti-immigration populist in a divided field (Pat Buchanan). Rubio fits neither of these profiles particularly well.In addition, both of the first two primary states are not particularly diverse, with both ranking among the top ten whitest states nationwide. While certainly not impossible to overcome (see President Obama), Rubio would have to find a way to appeal to an electorate that is almost 100 percent white and not favorable towards immigration.
    Should Rubio make it to South Carolina, he would face additional challenges. Since the days of Republican operative Lee Atwater, South Carolina has been known for its aggressive, nasty politics. Even politicians without a whiff of scandal can be brought down by the rough-and-tumble politics of the Palmetto State. And, as I detail in the next section, Rubio’s record has far more than a whiff of scandal. While Nevada would present a more favorable electorate than other early states, the difficulties Rubio would face in the other three early contests would overshadow a win in the Nevada caucuses.
    Rubio would be expected to easily win the next state, his home state of Florida; any other outcome would be viewed as a failure. Then, until Super Tuesday, the primary process is mostly dominated by small caucus states that are similar in demographics to Iowa. In other words, the early primary process offers two sorts of states for Rubio: expected winners (Florida) and states that present considerable difficulties (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina). It would be hard for Rubio to prove himself as a viable candidate early unless he somehow was able to win one of these difficult early states.


  • He will face too many allegations of corruption/scandal: As mentioned above, South Carolina has a reputation for dirty politics; even politicians with clean records (such as John McCain) can see their reputations sullied in this state. Among the scandals that have dogged Rubio recently are fines for campaign finance violations in his 2010 Senate race, having to pay back the Florida GOP after using the state party credit card for personal expenses such as remodeling his home, giving incorrect information about when his family emigrated from Cuba, and having close ties to scandal-ridden former Congressman David Rivera (R-FL). Also, in the mode of former Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards (D-NC) , Rubio’s charges to the state party credit card seemingly include a $134 haircut (something Rubio disputes). Each of the items listed above (no matter their veracity) could make a good attack ad in either a primary or a general election. And many of them will become part of attacks (perhaps from Super PACs) in South Carolina, if not before. Is it any wonder why Mitt Romney passed on Rubio as his VP nominee!?!


  • It’s not his turn: Marco Rubio would be a perfect Democratic primary candidate: young, relatively inexperienced, pretty new on the scene. Unfortunately for him, he would be running in the Republican primary. Every Republican nominee since 1964 save one (George W. Bush) had run for President before and lost. And Bush’s father, as we all know, was a candidate for president in 1980 before being elected president in 1988.This pattern is, of course, more illustrative than deterministic, but it says a lot about Republicans as people. Overall, the party is characterized by being orderly and risk averse in picking their nominees; in other words, Republicans are conservative. While the party had some difficulties in picking Senate candidates recently (see, for example Todd Akin), they still selected Mitt Romney for President despite the presence of Tea Party activists throughout the process.
    If the party were to buck this trend, they would be far more likely to go with someone in the mold of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) than with Rubio. Paul does not face the problem of being too liberal on immigration for the base and the structure of primaries is far better for him. Three of his dad’s (Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX)) best states in 2008 and 2012 were Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. While Republicans may well go with a “safe” pick like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL), Paul (much more than Rubio) has the potential to instigate a break with the past for the GOP.


The General Election:

  • He’s too conservative: If Rubio were to somehow make it through the primaries, he would be ill-placed to win in November. In addition to the vulnerabilities relating to allegations of corruption/scandal listed above, Rubio is far too conservative to become president. According to DW-Nominate’s ideology scores (which run from -1 for most liberal to 1 for most conservative), Rubio has a score of 0.57, placing him as the seventh most conservative member of the Senate.
    To place this in context, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) has a DW-Nominate score of 0.595, just barely to the right of Rubio. While some like to compare Rubio to President Barack Obama, then-Senator Obama’s DW-Nominate Score was  -0.373 as he ran for president, almost 0.2 units closer to the center than Rubio’s score of 0.57. Other recent senators who have run for president have had similarly ideological DW-Nominate scores to President Obama, with John Kerry (D-MA) having a score of -0.386, Bob Dole (R-KS) having a score of  0.338, and  John McCain having a score of 0.38.
    Rubio has cast a number of conservative votes since being in the Senate, including opposing aid for Hurricane Sandy victims, opposing the fiscal cliff deal, and opposing extension of the payroll tax cut in 2011. These votes and others give Rubio a DW-Nominate score that would likely make him the most conservative nominee since “Mr. Conservative” Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), who had a DW-Nominate score 0.668 when he ran for president. Of course, Goldwater went on to be crushed by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 election as Democrats won a two-thirds majority in Congress. Rubio is roughly as conservative as George McGovern (D-SD) was liberal; McGovern’s -0.568 is almost the mirror image of Rubio’s 0.57. McGovern lost 49 out of 50 states in an epic defeat in the 1972 election.

As there is no indication that America is lurching to the right (indeed, the opposite may be true), it seems unlikely America would elect its most conservative (and indeed most ideologically extreme) president in modern history in 2016. Of course, Rubio likely will not even make it past the considerable obstacles he faces in the primaries. So while Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) may be the media’s flavor of the month, his (non-existent) candidacy may well have reached its high point on February 12, 2013, as he delivers the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address.

The Democratic Left Ascendant

Elections have consequences, and many of those consequences are — well, consequential. But every election brings endless speculation that this election was the election - the realignment, the death of the losing party, the upending of the current political era.

The midterm election in 2002 was “a disaster” that crushed Democrats and forced them, if they were smart, to tack toward the center. President Bush’s 2004 victory only solidified the Democrats’ fate. Until, of course, the 2006 and 2008 elections marked a resurgent Democratic left and the ultimate failure of the conservative project. Until 2010… well, you get the point.

Some of these speculations are more well-founded than others. In his last post for the New York Times’ Campaign Stops blog, Columbia professor Thomas Edsall asks if “Rush Limbaugh’s country [is] gone“. Pointing to some polling data and discussions with prominent Democratic pollsters, Edsall suggests that a new left-leaning electorate is emerging from the ashes of the political polarization and financial crisis of the late 2000s.

The argument is interesting, but we could probably reconsider some of the evidence he points to.

Mr. Edsall, for example, discusses a Pew Research survey showing that young voters, African Americans and Democrats with a favorable impression of socialism. This could mark the emergence of a potent leftism that could forever transform the American political landscape.


Source: Thomas Edsall, New York Times Campaign Stop blog.


The numbers say something else to me. I’m not sure that any more Americans would support actual socialist policies today than would have two or ten years ago. What likely changed is the affective charge of the term.

Take, for example, dissertation research by UNC’s K. Elizabeth Coggins on the emergence and relative decline of “liberalism” as a political identity. A paper (pdf) by Coggins, coauthored with Jim Stimson, explores how individuals attach meaning to such labels as “liberal” and “conservative”, and “how widely popular liberal policies like Social Security, Medicare, and workplace safety came unhinged from the ideological label which defines them. ”

If liberalism could come unhinged from its ideological content, it stands to reason that the same could happen to socialism. Over the past several years, many conservative commentators and Republican leaders have called President Obama’s policies “socialism”; and if the term might rally voters on the right, it may too help to redefine how many liberals think of “socialism”. If liberals begin associating Obamacare and higher taxes on top income earners as socialism, they may be more inclined toward the ideology.

The rest of Mr. Edsall’s case rests on striking differences between liberals and conservatives on an array of policy proposals. The gaps are stark, but they are not necessarily new. Self-identified liberals and conservatives have long held distinct views on an array of policy issues from education to welfare spending.

Liberal and Conservative Attitudes toward Increased Welfare Spending. (ANES Cumulative Data FIle)

Liberal and Conservative Attitudes toward Increased Education Spending. (ANES Cumulative Data FIle)


True, ideologically-leftist voters attach more consistently to the Democratic party, and conservatives self-identify more as Republicans, than in decades past. This upholds a partisan sorting hypothesis, but not to any particular narrative of either left- or right-of-center ideologies emerging as dominant.


Liberalism and Conservatism Over Time. (ANES Cumulative Data FIle)


In fact, there is little sign that the American electorate is moving either left or right. Macropartisanship is known to shift over time in response to economic conditions, the occupant of the White House and political shocks. Surely Republicans will want to rethink their strategy of appealing to minorities and to a lesser extent women; but it’s unlikely that Republicans will have to learn to live with an emerging leftism in the American electorate.

It’s Good to be Average

Last week, we examined the accuracy of several presidential forecasts. For those familiar with statistics and probability theory, the results proved unsurprising: the forecasts came reasonably close to the state-level outcomes, but the average forecast outperformed them all.

Put another way, the aggregate of aggregates performed better than the sum of its parts.

This year’s Senate races provide us another opportunity to test our theory. Today, I gathered the Senate forecasts from several prognosticators and compared them to the most recent Election Day returns. As before, I also computed the RMSE (root mean squared error) to capture how accurate each forecaster was on average.

We must note one modest complication: not all forecasters posited a point-estimate for every Senate race. Nate Silver put forward a prediction for every race; but Sam Wang of Princeton University only released 10 predictions for competitive races.

We accordingly compute two different RMSEs. The first, RMSE-Tossups, only computes the RMSE for those races for which each forecaster put forward a prediction. (There are nine races that fall into this category: Arizona, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Virginia and Wisconsin.)

The other calculation, RMSE-Total, shows each forecaster’s RMSE over all predictions. Wang, for example, is evaluated by his accuracy on the ten predictions he made; while Silver is evaluated on all 33 races.

Forecast RMSE-Tossups RMSE-Total
Wang 4.7 4.6
Silver 5.1 8.0
Pollster 3.8 5.8
RealClearPolitics 5.4 5.1
TalkingPointsMemo 3.9 8.0
Average Forecast 4.4 5.4

The numbers in the above table give us a sense of how accurate each forecast was. The bigger the number, the larger the error. So what can we learn?

Alas! The average performs admirably yet again. It’s not perfect, of course; for some races, there are precious few forecasts to average over: Delaware, for instance, has only the 538 prediction.

To begin accounting for this, we weight the RMSE by the share of forecasts used to compute the average. If we limit our evaluation of the average to only those races with three or more available forecasts, the RMSE drops to 4.8.

What else emerges from the table? For one, the poll-only forecasts — especially the Wang, RCP and Pollster forecasts — perform better than Nate’s  mélange of state polls and economic fundamentals.

North Dakota, where Democrat Heidi Heitkamp bested Republican Rick Berg, provides a case in point. Pollster and RealClearPolitics both predicted a narrow win for Ms. Heitkamp. The 538 model considered the same polls upon which Pollster and RCP based their predictions; but the fundamentals in Mr. Silver’s model overwhelmed the polls. As a result, the 538 model predicted that Mr. Berg would win by more than five points. [See Footnote 1.]


In sum, however, all of the forecasts did reasonably well at calling the overall outcome. We can chalk this up to another victory for (most) pollsters and the quants who crunch the data.

1. Addendum: In the original post (text above is unchanged), I argued that Mr. Silver’s economic fundamentals pushed his ND forecast in the wrong direction. This undoubtedly contributed to his inaccuracy in North Dakota, but it wasn’t the main factor. As commenters pointed out, Silver’s model was selective in the polls it used to predict the outcome. As of the last run of the model, Silver’s polling average lined up fairly well with RCP (Berg +5) but not with Pollster (Heitcamp +0.3). Mea Culpa.