Monday, August 22, 2011

Why Democrats Lose (or Why Republicans Win)

*** Updated with a word of warning for Republicans who think this post holds good news for the GOP (see the end).

No matter how you measure party preference, Democrats have enjoyed a consistent lead for over 60 years. According to data from the American National Election Studies that lead has fluctuated, but remains significant.

Source: ANES

In 2008, Democrats led Republicans by 14 percentage points (when voters who lean toward one party or the other were included in the calculation). Even in years when Republicans won the presidency, including the Reagan landslide of 1984, Democrats enjoyed a voter preference advantage. Though not shown in the above chart, Democrats enjoyed similar advantages during midterm elections when they lost control of Congress or failed to retake control.

So why can't Democrats translate their clear advantage in voter preference into party victory? Aren't we a polarized nation where 90% or Democrats vote for Democrats and 90% of Republicans vote for Republicans? In short, no we're not. Though America's two political parties, and the party activists who set agendas are quite polarized, there is little evidence of polarization within the broader electorate (see my prior post on this).

As shown in Panel A of the following figure, in 1972 the ideological distribution of Democrats and Republicans was actually quite similar. Both parties were dominated by self-identified moderates – the Democratic distribution skewed slightly left and the Republican right.

On the 7-point ideology identification scale (with 1 representing extremely liberal and 7 extremely conservative, a score of 4 represented moderate) the mean score for non-activist Democrats was 3.88 compared to 4.59 for Republicans – a statistically significant difference.  By 1996, the Republican electorate had shifted significantly to the right (mean value of 5.13) and Democrats had shifted slightly, though significantly to the left (mean value of 3.69). The distribution observed in 2008 is very much similar to that of 1996 for both parties. By 1996 a clear divergence between the two party coalitions is evident, but it is driven almost entirely by the Republican party’s move to the right.
Source: ANES. Party activists were defined as those who attended a campaign meeting or rally AND contributed money to a candidate or campaign.

So there is element one of the polarization story - party polarization among the broader, non-activist electorate, has been driven by Republican rank and file voters shifting right while Democratic rank and file members essentially stood still.

But there's more the story and it's told in Panel B of the figure. In 1972, Democratic and Republican party activists differed significantly from non-activists, yet moderates were a sizable component of each group's activist base.

Interestingly, there was no statistically significant difference between the mean value of the Republican distribution for activists and non-activists in 1972. Among Democrats, however, the mean value of 2.89 for party activists was significantly to the left of non-activists. This pattern held through 2008.

Though the Republican party’s activist base has become more conservative, so has the party’s non-activist membership. In 2008 the mean score on the ideological scale for Republican activists was 5.50 – not significantly different from the 5.16 value for non-activists. Among Democrats, activists sported a mean value of 2.85 as compared to 3.64 for non-activist – a significant difference.

Since 1972, Republican party members – activists and non-activists alike – have become more conservative. Suggesting little disconnect between rank and file members of the party and its most committed members. Among Democrats, however, the shift to the left observed among party activists has resulted in a divide between more liberal activist members and more moderate rank and file members.

So there's element two of the polarization story. Republican activists and rank and file members moved right together. Democratic activists are moving left without their rank and file members.

These changes in the party’s coalitions offer further explanation for the Democratic party’s electoral difficulties.
As shown in a prior post, the American electorate is not polarized along ideological lines. Though there has been some evidence of a slight rightward shift since 1972. Party activists, however, are very polarized, with Democratic activists well to the left of center and Republican activists well to the right. At first glance, this suggests party activists out of step with their party’s respective coalitions. But this is clearly truer for Democrats than for Republicans. The Democratic party’s coalition has shifted only slightly to the left, but remains well anchored around a core group of moderates. Party activists, however, are decidedly left of center.

So there's element three of the polarization story - the American public has shifted somewhat to the right, so by staying put, the Democratic coalition has in effect moved to the left.

A substantial share of the Democratic party’s coalition finds itself ideologically situated between the extremes of partisan activists on the left and the right. Simply stated, a Democratic party agenda tailored to liberal party activists is more likely to alienate a much broader segment of the Democratic coalition than would a Republican party agenda tailored to conservatives.

There is a greater disconnect between activists and voters in the Democratic party. Democrats have more to lose, with regard to potential voters, by following activists to the left than do Republicans by following a lead to the right. Given this ideological disconnect, one would expect less partisan attachment or party loyalty among Democratic voters – a weakening of partisanship.

In a separate posting later this week I will show that Democratic partisans are in fact less loyal to the party over time and more likely to disagree with the party on key issues of party faith.

In short, Democrats lose because the folks who set the agenda for the party are more out of step with rank and file membership than are the folks who set the agenda for the Republican party. For Republicans, there is strength and ideological cohesion on the right. Republicans win because there is little difference between party activists and rank and file members. Among Democrats, however, strength comes not from the left but from the center - that's where the parties core group of rank and file voters are and when the party strays left many of those voters defect.

Update: But Republicans should not look to this post as good news for the GOP. At present, Republicans are able to win because so many Democrats occupy that middle ground between the extremes of the two activist elements - but the GOP has been moving right faster than the overall electorate and in the opposite direction of the non-activist Democrats. If the GOP continues to trek to the right they will reach a point where moderate Democrats no longer view the GOP as an acceptable alternative.

Those moderate Democrats may decide to support their own party or just stay home - either way the GOP would be left with it's smaller coalition of voters.

Perhaps more dangerous for the GOP, the Democratic party could moderate it's agenda and actively seek to close the gap between activists and non-activists. If Democrats can unify their coalition and consistently attract the broad middle of America's electorate the GOP is sunk and will return to the near minor party status they occupied between 1932 and 1964.

The data on party coalition ideology suggests that Democrats can move to the center and win, if Republicans move to the center they risk alienating a substantial portion of their electoral coalition.  So long as America remains a moderate nation, odds favor a re-emergent Democratic majority - but only if Democrats actively work to make it happen. The real question for Democrats is whether liberal party activists will cede control of the agenda and allow the party to move in the direction of it's moderate, non-activist voters. Current anger at President Obama, coming from the American left, suggest those activists are not quite ready.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The GOP has become the Gene Hackman Character from the Birdcage

I was watching The Birdcage on TV today (the 1996 remake of the french film La Cage Aux Folles). As I watched the Gene Hackman character I realized something funny and sad - his character was a caricature, an exaggeration, in 1996, but today the character plays like any number of GOP leaders or presidential candidates.

Watch this clip from the film dealing with gays in the military and prayer in schools and ask yourself - is there anything funny about Hackman's portrayal? 

It was funny in 1996 because it represented a fringe element of the Republican party - a party that had nominated George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole - Dole stood at the podium during his nominating convention and said:
The Republican Party is broad and inclusive. It represents many streams of opinion and many points of view. But if there's anyone who has mistakenly attached themselves to our party in the belief that we are not open to citizens of every race and religion, then let me remind you, tonight this hall belongs to the Party of Lincoln. And the exits which are clearly marked are for you to walk out of as I stand this ground without compromise.
What happened to the GOP? The Hackman caricature has become reality. Is there anything spoken by the Hackman character (then for shock value laughs) that is not today a standard part of a GOP candidate's stump speech?

Since the 1960s, the Democrats have become ever more beholden to leftwing interests and activists. But the political reality of being one of two parties in a right of center country has tempered the party's liberalism and resulted in a greater willingness to compromise and moderate. The GOP, however, has found considerable success via a strategy that targets very conservative base voters. At one time it may have been mere strategy, but those base voters now dominate the elected members of the party and truly set it's priorities.

It's a sad thing to see...

I think the GOP continues to win because most independent voters identify with the GOP on issues such as the size and scope of government, taxation, and, often, foreign policy. Meanwhile, social issue are less salient and independents have been able to tolerate the GOP's increasing social conservatism - but as the GOP moves ever more right in the face of a larger society that is becoming ever more tolerant it will become harder and harder for independents to turn a blind eye to the GOP on social issues.

With Democrats becoming more accommodating on issue such as taxation and spending cuts the party is positioning itself rather well to become the new home of those independent voters.  The great danger for the Democrats is that the party's liberal base will feel rejected and stop supporting the party. The liberal base, however, has never been quite as large as the conservative base - so the Democratic party can become America's moderate and dominant party even without liberal activists - and I think it's likely that it will.

Friday, August 12, 2011

We're Still Not Polarized...

In a New York Times story yesterday, reporter Jennifer Steinhauer told readers that in townhall meetings across the country members of Congress are not being told to compromise or find common ground, but rather to dig in, fight harder, and not compromise. Steinhauer was right to tell readers that these townhall meetings tend to be magnets for activists and the "most partisan and intransigent factions of both parties."

She's right and it's important to understand that these very vocal folks represent a distinct minority. According to data collected by the American National Election Studies, the most comprehensive database of Americans' political activities and beliefs, only 10% of the electorate attended a political meeting or rally in 2004 or 2008 - and these were presidential campaign years, so the that is probably the high watermark for attendance.

So 90% of the electorate does not attend these meetings and their voices are not heard by members of Congress. That would not matter if the 10% was representative of the absent 90% - but they are not. The American electorate is generally quite moderate, with a plurality (about 34%) describing themselves as pure moderates. Add in the folks who identify as only slightly liberal or conservative and you have 60% of Americans walking that middle road.

The folks who attend meetings and rallies are decidedly more ideological. In fact, the ideological distribution among those who attend meetings is nearly the inverse of those who do not. Fully 56% of meeting attendees come from the left and right wings of the ideological distribution - in recent election years they have tended to be more liberal than conservative, but with a Democratic President that has likely shifted somewhat.

Members of Congress are on recess and talking with constituents. Unfortunately, they are hearing a distorted message from party activists who despise compromise and celebrate partisan warfare. Meanwhile, the opinions of the vast majority of the electorate, a moderate electorate, are not being heard.

Want to stop the nonsense? Make sure you contact your member of Congress.Make your voice heard. In a recent post, I highlighted the fact that campaign volunteers and contributors tend to be far more partisan and ideological. So the folks who go to meetings, write checks, and knock on doors represent a very small, but very vocal, and ideologically committed slice of the electorate. Their level of commitment magnifies the influence of their small numbers.These folks are contributing to the poisonous nature of contemporary politics.

In a Democracy, even when it's a representative republic, larger numbers can defeat louder voices.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

America is not Polarized, but the Parties Are, part 15...

Now that the battle over the Debt Ceiling is settled (at least until Congress comes back from recess) we are once again treated to the usual chorus of voices bemoaning how polarized America has become. As such, I feel compelled to once again dispell the myth that America is a polarized nation.

As I argued during the healthcare battle, after the Gabbie Giffords shooting, and prior to the 2010 midterms, Americans are not polarized (at least no more polarized than at any point in the last 40 years), but our two political parties are very polarized - dominated by ideological and issue activists who do not represent the beliefs of the larger electorate.

Since the 1960s and the end of the Democratic Party’s dominance of the New Deal Era, American politics has become far more competitive. Democrats lost their solid hold on the South and Republicans lost their hold on the North East. Only 7 states had divided government in 1954, in 2007 that number stood at 23 states. With few exceptions, either party has fair shot at winning statewide elections in most states. Control of Congress and the White House has bounced back and forth between the two parties. The parties have responded to this era of competition by becoming ever more partisan and polarized.

A recent study by political scientist Daniel Coffey determined that there is a direct and positive correlation between party competition and party ideology. As a state becomes more competitive between Republicans and Democrats the respective parties become ever more conservative and liberal. V.O. Key hinted at this in 1956 when he argued that competition would force parties to offer more distinct policies to voters in an effort to influence their choice. Additionally, as competition increases the parties come to rely more heavily, not on the mean, median, or moderate voter, but rather on the more committed and activist voter. This means liberal activists for Democrats and conservative activists for Republicans. This has the effect of pushing the parties ever farther to the extreme.

As the agendas of the two political parties became ever more divergent after the 1960s Americans began to "sort" more neatly into one party or the other, a phenomenon known as party sorting. As the Democratic Party became more liberal and the Republican Party more conservative, liberal Republicans left the party and became Democrats or Independents and conservative Democrats became Republicans or Independents. The parties polarized, the public did not.

In fact, there has been precious little change in the last 30 years with regard to the share of Americans who identify as Conservative, Moderate, or Liberal. Rather conservatives no longer feel comfortable in the Democratic Party and Liberals are no longer comfortable in the Republican Party - Moderates appear to be less comfortable with both parties and that explains why Independent voters have emerged as the fastest growing segment of the American electorate. As a result of this sorting, the Republican Party became more homogenously Conservative and the Democratic Party more homogenously Liberal. So the distribution of Liberals, Conservatives, and Moderates within the the two parties has changed significantly while the distribution of Liberals, Conservatives, and Moderates within  broader electorate has changed very little.

The electorate is no more polarized now than in 1970, 1980, or 1990 - but the parties are. So of course 90 percent of Republicans vote Republican and 90 percent of Democrats vote Democrat and Presidential approval correlates to party affiliation, and Democratic members of Congress have become more Liberal and Republican members of Congress more conservative. Meanwhile, Moderate voters tend to split their support between the parties, but also vote at lower levels - likely a result of feeling ill-represented by either party. All of this is a natural byproduct of party sorting, but party sorting is not the same as polarization.

Though some scholars (especially, but not limited to, Alan Abramowitz) have advanced the theory that this growing polarization among elected officials is in fact reflective of a polarized public, there is in fact little evidence that the mass public has become polarized. Rather the polarization has occurred among committed political activists and the interest groups they support – a relatively small share of the electorate.

This is evident in Figure One, panel A shows the self-identified ideological orientation of the general electorate at three points 1972, 1994, and 2008. Although the distribution has shifted over time, the distribution remains normal with most voters amassed in the center as Moderates. Panel B is limited to those members of the electorate who indicated that they had worked for a campaign and given money to a candidate – I define these voters as party activists. Among these activists, a clear bimodal distribution is evident with the peaks of the distribution to the left and the right of moderation.

According to political scientist Anthony Downs in a winner-take-all election system coupled with two dominant parties (as in the United States) the parties will adopt positions that are ideologically attractive to the greatest concentration of voters.

The distribution of the American electorate (in the broadest sense) is unimodal which, according to Downs, should promote more moderate parties as they compete for the median voter. But Downs’ theory further suggests that if the electorate was polarized into two distinct voting blocs, one left of center and one right of center, the parties would “diverge toward the extremes rather than converge on the center. Each gains more votes by moving toward a radical position than it loses in the center (p. 143).” Steven Hill writes "one of the defining characteristics of a winner-take-all system is that it promotes adversarial politics so that on a whole host of issues it is painfully obvious that the overriding agenda for both major parties is... to stake out positions vis-a-vis the other side."

In the 1960s Republicans exploited several emerging schisms in the ranks of the Democratic Party's coalition in order to become competitive - schisms revolving around national security, welfare spending, and policies with regard to race relations. The party defined itself by being what the Democratic Party was not. Over time both parties increasingly defined themselves by being the antithesis of the other party - this is why there can be no middle ground on isues ranging from abortion, entitlement spending, taxes, environmental regulation, healthcare reform - each party's identity is inextricably linked to being the mirror image of the other party.

This led to party sorting, internal partisan homogeneity, and the bimodal distribution of the engaged voters evident in Figure One. The distribution of the most engaged and activist elements of the electorate, those most likely to participate and vote in elections, is bimodal which has resulted in two polarized parties and the system now feeds off of that bimodal distribution. So long as the more Moderate members of the general electorate remain less engaged there is little incentive for either party to moderate and pursue Moderate voters; rather to do so would risk alienating more committed activist party members. So long as neither party moderates and pursues more Moderate members of the electorate there is little incentive for Moderate voters to become more engaged – a self-reinforcing cycle exists.

The increased electoral competition between the Democratic and Republican parties, in the current era, has had a significant impact on public opinion, partisanship, polarization, and the institutions of governance. As described by Congressional scholar Norm Orstein the present era is “an extended era of close partisan margins, which gave rise to high-stakes legislative politics and sharply reduced incentives for lawmakers to work across party lines to solve problems.”

The only hope for restoring moderation, compromise, and good government - for breaking the hold on the current system of partisan activists - is for the vast and unengaged middle to re-enter the game and wrest control from the ideologues. Simply chosing between the tweedle-dee Democrats and the tweedle-dum Republicans will not suffice. Rather the current party system must be brought down.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Talking Redistricting on Kojo Nnamdi on NPR

I was a guest on the Kojo Nnamdi show today discussing redistricting in the state. I'd like to thank Kojo for having me on the show.

Listen here

Maryland's Enters The Fight Over Redistricting in Maryland, Politics

We explore how this round of redistricting is likely to shape the balance of political power in Maryland.

Maryland is about as "blue" as a state can be. But it's about to be consumed by complicated fights over redistricting, even though the Democrats control all the important levers of power. We explore how race is shaping this year's round of redistricting in Maryland, and we hear from Republicans about their strategy going into the process.


Andrew A. Green
Opinion Editor, The Baltimore Sun

Alex Mooney
Chairman, Maryland Republican Party

Aisha Braveboy
Member, Maryland House of Delegates (D-Prince George's County); Co-Chair, Maryland Legislative Black Caucus Redistricting Committee

Todd Eberly
Professor, Political Science, St. Mary's College of Maryland; Author, The FreeStater Blog