Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Maryland 2014 and the Men Who Would Be Governor

The 2014 Democratic primary for Maryland governor may seem a long way off, but for the men interested in the nomination it looms large on the horizon. With all eyes turned to the 2012 legislative session of the General Assembly and Martin O'Malley's high profile gambit for a resume' of actual accomplishments I think it's worth taking a moment to look at the men who wish to succeed him.

At present, there are likely to be four big names (and what a rarity that is - four credible candidates) seeking the Democratic nomination, Attorney General Doug Gansler, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Comptroller Peter Franchot, and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman.

Only two Republicans have won statewide election since 1980 (can you name the two?) so the odds do favor a Democrat winning the general election, regardless of the Republican nominee.

Though many observers of state politics argue Gansler is the clear frontrunner, I would suggest that conclusion is anything but certain. If the 2014 primary were like a typical Democratic primary in recent years with only two credible candidates then certainly Gansler would be the favorite - but in a three man race his odds drop considerably and in a 4 man race a clear new favored candidate emerges from the pack - Lt. Governor Anthony Brown. In a multi-candidate race featuring Brown, the closest competitor will be the candidate who can appeal to rural Marylanders in Western Maryland, the Eastern Shore, and Southern Maryland - that candidate is not (at least not yet) Doug Gansler.

Quick Candidate Profiles

In a recent profile, Gansler described himself as "fiscally conservative" and “an unabashed, pro-business, moderate centrist Democrat.” Though this may be the image Gansler would want to project in a general election, his record and reputation suggest otherwise. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 2nd Amendment right to keep and bear arms was an individual right and that states were limited in their power to restrict such rights. Prior to the ruling, Gansler joined a friend-of-the-court brief submitted to the Supreme Court urging the justices not to extend the Second Amendment to the states. During the 2010 legislative session of the General Assembly, Gansler sent waves through Maryland politics when he issued an opinion that Maryland courts would likely recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. As Attorney General, Gansler has made environmental protection a top priority and even created the Attorney General’s Environmental Advisory Council to advise him. In short, Gansler's tenure in office has been marked by the high profile pursuit of very liberal causes. To be fair, Gansler may be fiscally conservative, but there is little opportunity for an Attorney General to establishing those credentials. Make no mistake, Gansler will be the liberal in the 2014 primary. His advisory opinion on Maryland recognizing same-sex marriage, his environmental crusading, and his firm support of gun control would make it impossible for him to claim to be anything but a member of the progressive wing of the Democratic party. That said, Maryland has promoted past Attorneys General - seven have sought the governorship since 1900 and three have been elected. But no Attorney General has made the leap to Government House since 1946 - of the three that have tried since then none succeeded.

This brings us to Comptroller Peter Franchot. Since early last year, Franchot has wisely used his role as Comptroller to lay claim to the banner of true fiscal conservative. Last summer, Franchot warned Maryland (but especially the Governor and General Assembly) that the state had become too reliant on the federal government for jobs and economic growth. What sounded like a wise warning in August now seems especially prescient given the failure of the Deficit Reduction Supercommittee. Maryland is uniquely dependent on the federal government. Fully 1/5 of the state workforce is employed by government at some level and 30% of the state's budget revenue comes from the federal government. If federal budget cuts are truly in our future, Maryland's golden days of low unemployment and job growth may be gone. More recently, Franchot criticized Governor O'Malley's FY 2013 budget proposal and argued for a moratorium on tax increases until the economy improves. In comments last week before the Maryland Association of Realtors Franchot singled out the Governor's plan to phase-out the mortgage interest deduction for upper middle class earners as especially troubling in a state with a still recovering housing market. In perhaps the most significant sign that Franchot will wear the banner of true fiscal conservative his warnings against state borrowing recently earned the scorn of the Baltimore Sun editorial page (a distinction likely to be viewed as a badge of honor by voters outside of the I-95 corridor). Franchot also has history on his side, of the six Comptrollers who have been elected in the past 90 years three were elected governor after serving as Comptroller. Marylanders tend to trust their Comptrollers.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman will have the benefit of being the only chief executive in the race and he will be the only candidate from the Baltimore region (authentically given that Ulman's parents are from Baltimore). Since the 1950s, 8 of the last 10 governors have come from Baltimore City or County. Five of the last 10 were county executives or mayors - suggesting Maryland voters like to elect candidates with executive experience. Though once the political power base in the state, Baltmore City and the larger Baltimore region have witnessed the state's population and political power as it slowly, but clearly migrates to the DC suburbs in Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties. The greater Baltimore region of Baltimore City, as well as Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard County is home to 41% of the state's registered Democrats. Ulman has been in the headlines recently criticizing the Governor's proposal to shifted millions of dollars in teacher's pension costs to the counties in an effort to balance the state budget. Ulman cannot easily be defined as liberal or conservative - he is, dare I say, post-partisan. Even as he criticized the Governor's budget, he has been lauded for the county's innovative health reform efforts and Ulman was central to the state's receipt of a federal grant to bring broadband to the state.

Then there is Anthony Brown. Brown has great resume' for governor. Brown is an Iraq War veteran and Bronze Star recipient, he served nearly 3 decades in the Army and is a Colonel in the Army Reserves. Brown represented legislative district 25 in Prince Georges County from 1998-2006 and was House Majority Whip. The downside for Brown is that even with that incredible resume' many folks in Maryland wonder just who he is. If his goal is to become the next governor of the state, he has not used his time as Lt. Governor as well as one might expect. Brown also has the weight of history working against him. Since the office of Lt. Governor was restored in 1970 no Lt. Governor has gone on to be elected Governor. In fact, only one has even managed to secure the party nomination. That said, he will undoubtedly lay an early claim to the significant African-American vote in the primary. African-Americans compose roughly a third of the Maryland population and a quarter of the registered voters, and are the most reliable Democratic voting bloc - yet the Democratic Party has never nominated and run an African-American candidate at the top of any statewide ticket. Brown is an accomplished legislator with an impressive resume and I believe that African-American voters would be quick to rally around his candidacy.

Looking at the Candidates Strengths/Weaknesses

Gansler and Liberals
In a primary, typically the most committed and partisan activist vote. For Democrats that would mean liberals. In the 2008 presidential primary, 52% of the Democrats voting described themselves as liberal. Laying claim to 52% of the electorate in a 4 man race is no small accomplishment, but it gets more complicated. A further review of the exit poll data suggests that no small share of the Democrats' liberal base is composed of a significant number of African-Americans. This worked out well for Barack Obama as he won 84% of the African-American vote. For Gansler, however, it means the liberal base will be divided and that 52% will be divided between Gansler and Brown - and do not discount Ulman's appeal, especially based on Howard County's health reforms.

Gansler is from Montgomery County and has a record of winning county-wide having served two terms as the states attorney. Montgomery County is home to 16% of the state's registered Democrats. Unfortunately for Gansler, Franchot is also from Montgomery County and represented parts of the county in the General Assembly - so the two men will split the county's votes. Well over a third of the county's registered Democrats are African-Americans and Brown is likely to claim a significant share of them as well.

Brown and African-Americans (please see ***note at end of post)
African-Americans are the Democratic Party's most loyal voting bloc and I believe that the state's many African-American communities will be eager to elect the state's first black chief executive. By my calculation, African-Americans are about 38% of the state's registered Democrats. Barack Obama received 84% of their vote in 2008 and, again based on my own calculations, Kweisi Mfume received about 85% of the African-American vote in the the 2006 Democratic Senate primary. This represents a significant advantage for Brown. In the 2006 primary (which featured a competitive nomination race for Comptroller and Senator) only 30% of state Democrats voted. By my estimation, African-Americans were roughly 38% of that turn-out.

Based on current voter registration totals, a 30% primary turn-out would translate into 577,600 voting Democrats. Assuming African-American and white turn-out is similar then 38%, or 219,500, of the Democrats would be African American and based on past elections Brown would win 84% of their vote, or 184,400 votes - 32% of the total votes cast. So before including his share of the white vote, Brown receives nearly 1/3 of the vote in a 4 man race.... that's quite an advantage.

Ulman and the Baltimore Region 
Those same 2008 exit polls show 48% of voters came from the greater Baltimore region. So being the Baltimore candidate would be a smart strategic move. No other candidate has a clear claim to the region, but of the 48%, nearly a third were from Baltimore City. Nearly two-thirds of City residents are African-American and that means that some of Ulman's "Baltimore advantage" would be diminished as he loses voters to Brown. That said, Howard County is a swing county in a crucial location. Howard is literally the connective tissue that links the Baltimore region with the DC suburbs in Montgomery and PG. Beyond that, western Howard County links the the urban and suburban I-95 corridor with rural Western Maryland. Additionally, Ulman's efforts in Howard County from the Healthy Howard program to environmental initiatives - such as green buildings - would allow him to challenge Gansler's claim to the liberal base.

In many ways, Howard county encapsulates the diversity (economically, geographically, socially) that make Maryland great. Ulman's ability to win there may speak to an ability to appeal to the diverse elements of Maryland's Democratic electorate. That said, Howard County is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation and that may work against Ulman as he campaigns in Allegany and Garret County in the west or Wicomico in the east - something will be necessary in a 4 person race. Ulman has maintained Howard's AAA bond rating and kept the county's books in balance - but I think he has a better chance of appealing to the party's liberal base than to more conservative Democrats outside the I-95 corridor.

Franchot and Forgotten Maryland
As I consider Franchot's emphasis on fiscal conservatism I am convinced that he has given a great deal of consideration to the 2014 primary as he has adopted a very wise campaign strategy should he run in a 3 or 4 man race for the nomination. As Comptroller, Franchot cannot initiate new programs like a County Executive, he cannot head taskforces like a Lt. Governor, and he cannot wade into high profile cases like an Attorney General. But, the Comptroller of the state of Maryland is uniquely positioned to take on issues of fiscal prudence. His position on the Board of Public Works makes him the equal of the Governor with regard to budget cuts when the Assembly is not in session and that role gives him every right to establish an independent fiscal identity in the state - he was, after all, elected by the voters independent of the Governor. The Comptroller commands a staff of over 1,100 and sits on the capital debt affordability commission, the commission on state debt, and the board of revenue estimates (among others) - those positions, combined with the Board of Public Works make the Comptroller a key point of citizen contact within the state.

Surveying the 2014 primary landscape one can easily see a battle for the I-95 corridor from Baltimore City, southern Baltimore County, north and west Anne Arundel County, as well as Howard, Montgomery and Prince Georges (and northern Charles) counties. Gansler, Ulman and Brown all have advantages that are very much confined to that area - an area home to 81% of the state's Democrats. But that leaves 17 counties and nearly 20% of the Democratic electorate with no champion. Franchot's fiscal conservatism and swipes at the federal dependency of central Maryland can clearly be understood as an appeal to voters outside of the I-95 corridor who often feel overlooked by the state's Democratic party.

The Role of "the Rest of Maryland" in 2014
All four potential candidates have some claim to the central Maryland I-95 corridor. Gansler, Brown, and Franchot hold statewide office, Brown hails from Prince Georges County, Franchot and Gansler have electoral histories in Montgomery County. Ulman represents Howard. The I-95 corridor may include 81% of the primary electorate, but 81% divided among 4 candidates comes out to about 20.25% per man - in a four person race someone needs to top 25% statewide. That's why rural Maryland is likely to figure far more predominantly in 2014 than it has in any recent Democratic primary.

At present, none of the 4 expected candidates has natural claim to voters in Western or Southern Maryland or on the Eastern Shore. Since none of the candidates are native to those parts of Maryland, the candidate who can find a message that resonates will be best positioned to claim those voters. For Gansler, I do not see how he overcomes his perceived liberalism. Further, he risks alienating his liberal base by trying to present himself as a fiscal conservative. Brown will be harmed by his affiliation with O'Malley. If this year's budget is approved then Brown will be part of an administration that was responsible for two significant tax increases (2007 and 2012) and that "declared war" on rural Maryland. Ulman's innovations in Howard County could become liabilities in rural Maryland where the median income is often half that of Howard County. For Franchot, his past as a liberal Democrat in the General Assembly is likely to be overshadowed by his more recent work as Comptroller. Because it is a fiscal position he does not have the added baggage of social issues to work against him in rural Maryland.

In a four way race featuring Brown, Franchot, Gansler, and Ulman the simple math favors Brown owing to the power of African-American voters in the Democratic electorate. But Brown is likely to be harmed in many parts of the state by his association with O'Malley. Gansler has the money and clearly the ambition but it's difficult to see how Gansler broadens his appeal beyond white liberals in central Maryland - and even among them he will face competition. Ulman brings established credentials as an executive and the promise of a post-partisan age, but will need to establish statewide name recognition beyond the orbit of Howard County. Franchot has positioned himself as the candidate of fiscal constraint and is clearly attempting to create a relationship with parts of Maryland long overlooked by Democrats and Democratic candidates. If Franchot can become the candidate of "the rest of Maryland" while dividing the I-95 corridor vote, he may emerge atop the pack.

The 2014 race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination will be anything but boring, recently released campaign fundrasing numbers show that all four men will have the money needed to compete. Each of the possible candidates bring much to the table in the form of strengths and limitations. Each can lay claim to crucial elements of the Democratic electorate. At present, Gansler has far more money, Brown has a crucial voting bloc and an incredible resume', Ulman has the experience as an executive, and Franchot has a message that truly resonates in the current environment.

I believe that a four man race favors Brown, but he may have to overcome O'Malley fatigue and an electorate hard-pressed to think of an O'Malley accomplishment. In that event, or if this turns into a three person race, the candidate who can consolidate the voters outside the I-95 corridor is likely to emerge the victor.

*** I hasten to add a very important caveat. In no way do I mean to suggest that African-Americans would support a candidate simply based on skin color. Republican Michael Steele's inability to make in-roads with African-American voters in 2006 and Republican Charles Lollar's similar inability in the 5th Congressional District in 2010 clearly demonstrate that African-American voters care more about issues than about race. What Obama in 2008 and Mfume in 2006 show, however, is that when faced with a choice of candidates who share similarly acceptable policy views African-American voters overwhelmingly support the African-American candidate. An easily justified choice given the population's history of being denied representation.

Monday, January 30, 2012

O'Malley's Gas Tax Gambit

Everyone was waiting for Governor O'Malley's gas tax proposal - conspicuously absent from his recent budget submission - but few could have anticipated that O'Malley would propose adding a 6% sales tax to gasoline and effectively add $0.21 per gallon over the next three years.

This is, of course, a ludicrous proposal. No member of the General Assembly elected by a victory margin of less than 10 percentage points would even consider such an increase - especially when coupled with the other tax increases proposed by O'Malley.

But O'Malley has no expectation of a $0.21 per gallon tax increase - rather O'Malley has decided to give the General Assembly political cover and make whatever gas tax increase they ultimately pass seem like a bargain for state residents.

Most folks were anticipating a proposed increase of $0.15, in line a state commission’s recent recommendation. Senate President Mike Miller has argued a $0.10 tax increase was more reasonable. More reasonable compared to $0.15? Maybe. But compared to $0.21? Absolutely.

So do not be fooled. Governor O'Malley does not expect the Assembly to increase the gas tax by $0.21 per gallon. Rather he thinks the $0.21 per gallon proposal will make residents thankful when the Assembly approves an increase of "only" $0.10 or $0.15.  Wait and see how long it takes for members of the Assembly to step forward and "challenge" their governor by expressing firm opposition to the proposal... and then support for a "much lower" or "more reasonable" increase.

It's a cynical ploy, but one that will likely work. Unfortunately, it will be another regressive tax passed on to working families and another hit to the recovering economy. Between gas taxes, flush taxes, and higher tolls it becomes harder and harder to see how working class families will be able to recover from the Great Recession (remember when Democrats represented working families?). It also becomes harder to see any indication that O'Malley cares... his attention seems to have shifted to 2016 and the Democratic presidential primary.

O'Malley's 2012 agenda for the state must be giving Lt. Governor Anthony Brown serious heartburn - as he'll be the one asked to defend the record should he seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 2014.

O'Malley may help Republicans accomplish something that they have been unable to do on their own - become competitive with Democrats statewide. Major elements of O'Malley's agenda are opposed by majorities in the state and his positive approval rating is driven entirely by voters in Baltimore City and Prince Georges County according to a recent Post poll.  Though Democrats continue to maintain a clear voter registration advantage over Republicans the annual voter registration report from the State Board of Elections shows the Democratic and Republican voter rolls shrank while unaffiliated registration grew - but in Maryland, most unaffiliated voters vote Republican. Likewise, though Democrats dominated statewide and federal elections in 2010, Republicans won 50% of all local offices for the first time since... the Civil War.

Two party competition is slowly coming to Maryland, O'Malley seems to have committed himself to hastening its arrival.

Monday, January 23, 2012

O'Malley's Budget Would Jeopardize Economic Recovery

Now is not the time to introduce significant and regressive tax increases on working families, nor is it the time to lose ground on education equality by shifting costs to economically unequal counties.

Last week Governor O'Malley unveiled his FY 2013 budget.  As with all prior years, O'Malley had to deal with a structural deficit - this time amounting to roughly $1 billion of the budget's $14 billion total. With the exception of a 2007 special session O'Malley has opted to bring the budget into balance every year through spending cuts and one-time transfers from special funds. Even in the 2007 special session of the Maryland General Assembly the $800 million in new revenue generated by taxes on businesses and individuals were were coupled with $500 million in spending reductions. All told, O'Malley has cut spending by $7.5 billion during his tenure - a commendable accomplishment during very lean times.

For FY 2013, O'Malley continues to make cuts - roughly $600-800 million depending on the math - but decided as well that the time was right for more tax increases, what O'Malley describes as a balanced approach. I do not disagree with the need to consider additional sources of revenue, unfortunately O'Malley's concept of "balance" is anything but balanced. O'Malley proposes capping deductions for singles making more than $100,000 and couples making more than $150,000. Estimates are this would impact the top 20% of wage earners in the state - so this tax increase is not targeted at the top 1%, 5% or 10% - it hits deeply into the middle class in a very high cost of living state.

The capping of tax deductions is not the worst offender, however. Though the income tax provisions would work to make Maryland's income tax structure more progressive (a good thing) it is offset by several proposals that would be especially harmful.

O'Malley has proposed an end to a decades old practice of the state covering the cost of teachers' pensions by beginning a steady shift of that responsibility to the counties. Under the proposed budget $239 million in teachers' retirement costs would be shifted to cash-strapped counties. The governor's budget offsets some of the cost transfer by having the state assume responsibility for some of the teachers' Social Security payroll tax (formerly handled by the counties) and via revenue sharing from the new tax policies. But even with these measures the cost shift to counties is tremendous. Maryland is home to significant income inequality across and between counties and this cost shift will be especially burdensome on poor counties - counties where quality teachers are already hard enough to attract. Consider the stark contrast between Allegany County with a median household income of roughly $39,000 and Howard County where the median household income is $104,000. Yes, wealthier counties would now see an increased income tax burdone, but the increase would hardly offset the increased pension costs shouldered by poorer counties - instead, residents of poor counties will see increases in their local taxes.

Not in the budget, but expected to follow soon, is a proposal from O'Malley to increase the gas tax by $0.15 a gallon - bringing the state tax to nearly $0.40 per gallon. O'Malley argues this is a reasonable increase given the infrastructure needs of the state and the fact that the gas tax has not been increased in years. It's true the state is in need of infrastructure improvements - making one question the governor's decisions to repeatedly raid the transportation trust fund for other purposes in the past - but an increase in the gas tax during a weak economic recovery is just a bad idea. Adding that gas tax increase on top of recent and dramatic increases in Maryland tolls makes it an unforgivable idea.

Excise taxes (like those placed on fuel) and tolls are especially regressive as they consume far more of the income of lower income earners. O'Malley is essentially raising the cost of working for Maryland families. He is also raising the cost of providing for those families. The higher fuel and toll costs will deplete the disposable income of working families - that means less money to save for college, for retirement, and less money to spend on goods and services that help maintain economic growth. Higher fuel and toll costs will also increase the prices of goods and services meaning that Maryland's working families will have less to spend on more expensive goods and services - a double whammy that makes no sense in the midst of a weak economy.

As if the increased fuel and toll costs were not enough, the Governor would also double the current $30 flush tax on most families. O'Malley proposes that the flush tax now be based on water usage, rather than a flat tax - but this only works for folks with public water (like Howard County). For folks living in rural Maryland (like Allegany County) who draw water from a well the tax would simply be doubled. The net effect likely to be a disproportionate cost shift to lower income Marylanders. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the bottom 20% of wage earners pay three times more of their income on federal excise taxes on gasoline and motor fuel alone as compared to the top 20%. When all federal excise taxes are considered, the proportional burden placed on the bottom 20% rises to nearly six times that of the top 20%. Six times the burden for federal excise taxes alone - and O'Malley would add to the inequality through increases in state excise taxes. So much for progressive leadership.

In introducing the budget O'Malley declared "Job creation is our No. 1 priority..." Such a statement can hardly be reconciled with a budget that seeks balance by placing significant new costs on working class Marylanders by increasing the cost of driving to work, the costs of goods and services purchased, and even the cost of the water they drink.

In a state that tops the country in millionaires, O'Malley is relying on regressive taxation and a tremendous cost shift to counties to balance the budget. The approach is anything but balanced or fair and should be rejected by the General Assembly.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ballot Initiatives May Impact 2012 Election in Maryland

The possibility of two high profile ballot measures - repeal of the MD DREAM Act and Same-Sex marriage - may make the 2012 election in Maryland anything but boring.

Ordinarily, a presidential election year in Maryland is pretty boring stuff. No Republican presidential candidate has carried the state since George H. W. Bush in 1988 and no Republican has won a Senate race since Mac Matthias in 1980. In 2008 Maryland delivered Barack Obama one of his largest victory margins.

At first blush, one would be forgiven for expecting 2012 to be another boring presidential election year in the Free State. Though President Obama's approval rating nationally is languishing in the mid-forties his approval in Maryland is just north of 50% - thanks largely to the overwhelming support of African American voters. Democratic Senator Ben Cardin will be seeking election to a second term and in the midst of the 2010 Republican tidal wave, Cardin's senior counterpart, Barbara Mikulski, cruised to reelection with 60% of the vote.

Maryland's Congressional districts were just redrawn as well and the state's two safe Republican districts (the 1st on the Eastern shore and the 6th in Western Maryland) were reduced by half with Rep. Roscoe Bartlett's district redrawn to include a host of new Democratic voters from Montgomery county.

Normally, one would expect 2012 to be year in which Republicans and conservative Independents and Democrats might decide to stay home - but there's reason to believe that 2012 will be anything but a normal presidential election in Maryland. Indeed, 2012 may reveal serious divisions within the state's Democratic electorate and the creation of some strange political bedfellows.

During the 2011 legislative session, the General Assembly passed a controversial measure known as the Maryland DREAM act. Under the bill, signed into law by Governor O'Malley, the children of undocumented residents would be granted the opportunity to attend Maryland colleges and universities and pay in-state tuition. The public backlash to the new law was significant and with precious little effort or money an opposition group quickly gathered enough signatures to suspend the law and place it on the ballot in 2012. By design, it is very difficult in Maryland to mount a successful petition drive against a piece of legislation but organizers gathered twice the number of required signatures in record time.

The 2011 session also saw the defeat of Same-Sex marriage legislation. Though such measures have passed in the House of Delegates in the past they always died in the Senate. In 2011, the Maryland political world was shaken when then the Senate narrowly passed the measure. Under tremendous pressure from community religious leaders the bill died in the House when an unlikely coalition of black Democrats from Baltimore City and Prince Georges County joined with rural Democrats and Republicans in opposition to the bill.

Same-Sex marriage will be up for a vote during the 2012 session and if it is approved this time there is every expectation that another petition drive will place it on the ballot along with the DREAM Act in 2012.

To understand the potential impact of these two measures on the 2012 vote one need only review the new poll from Gonzales Research. The poll finds voters evenly divided on both measures with 49% opposing the DREAM Act and 48% supporting it. On same-sex marriage 49% favor it and 47% oppose it. The more interesting results, however, come from the results among specific voting blocs.

Democrats (62%) and Independents (56%) support same-sex marriage, but 76% of Republicans oppose it. Independents and Republicans make-up 40% of the state's electorate and the high level of opposition among Republicans coupled with the 4 in 10 Democrats and Independents opposed helps explain the state's split support. The more interesting division, however, is between Democrats overall and black voters (nearly all of whom vote Democratic in Maryland). Though 62% of Democrats support same-sex marriage, nearly the same share - 60% - of black voters oppose it. This represents a significant division among the Democratic electorate.

On the DREAM Act Republicans (71%) and Independents (52%) oppose it Democrats (61%) support it - but not overwhelmingly. Black voters (56%) support the measure.

So how can these numbers help us understand the 2012 election?

Ben Cardin vs. Anthony Muse
Prince Georges County Senate Democrat C. Anthony Muse has announced his intention to challenge Ben Cardin the Democratic party primary. Muse has been a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage and voted against the measure in the 2011 session. Though Cardin enjoys a 68% approval rating among state Democrats, Muse could use the same-sex marriage issue to drive a wedge between Cardin and black voters and conservative Democrats. Cardin has spoken favorably with regard to protecting the civil rights of same-sex partners but has largely avoided taken a position on the issue of same-sex marriage. A challenge by Muse would likely force Cardin to take a firm position. If Cardin endorses same-sex marriage it may provide an opening for Muse.

Even if Cardin wins the nomination, a serious challenge by Muse could weaken him heading into November (Cardin only has a 51% job approval rating) and the presence of same-sex marriage on the ballot may undermine his support among black voters even as they turnout to reelect President Obama. If a credible GOP candidate could siphon some of the Black vote, or more realistically they withhold their vote for Senate, that combined with turn-out by social conservatives opposed to same-sex marriage and the DREAM Act could face Cardin with a serious challenge.

Maryland's 6th, 8th, and 2nd Congressional Districts
In the newly drawn 6th Congressional District, the ballot measures may save Roscoe Bartlett's job. Based on a vote analysis of the prior and newly adopted congressional districts one would expect a Democrat to win the new 6th district in a presidential election year. But, increased turn-out by conservatives and social conservative would likely make the electorate more similar to the 2010 midterm. In that case, Bartlett may just squeak to victory - dashing Democratic plans to claim a new seat in Congress.

Turn-out by social conservatives and any degree of dissension within the ranks of key Democratic voting blocs could spell trouble for Chris Van Hollen and his newly drawn and decidedly less Democratic 8th district as well as Dutch Ruppersberger in the 2nd district where black voters are crucial to his reelection success.

In the end, Maryland is a democratic state. Republicans have won statewide elections only twice in the last 32 years. Odds favor a strong democratic showing in 2012, but do not discount the impact of these two ballot measure and their potential to disrupt what would otherwise be a boring election year in Maryland.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The "Myth" of the Myth of the Independent Voter

A new poll from Gallup shows that the share of Americans identifying as "independent" is at an all-time high of 40%. Though many political consultants and political scientists have long argued that independent voters are a myth - I disagree. In a forthcoming paper for Third Way I will present a more detailed argument for the importance of independent voters and even independent partisans - especially for Democrats. I further explore the issue in a book that I am writing with Steve Schier, the book, America's Dysfunctional Political System, is due early next year from Routledge Press. Some of this research will be presented at the upcoming Midwest Political Science Association conference in Chicago in April.  Presented below is a quick examination of the impact and importance of independent voters.

In a column for The Hill late last year, prominent Democratic pollster Mark Mellman repeats an all too common argument in American politics - that independent voters are a myth. According to Mellman "a great many of those who call themselves independents at first blush feel closer to one party or the other (a group we affectionately call “leaners”), leaving a small group of true independents... just 11 percent of the electorate... on average, 77 percent of independents who lean toward the Democrats voted for that party’s presidential candidates, while over 80 percent of Republican leaners did likewise, rivaling the support offered by those who initially claimed to be partisans."

Mellman is not alone, it is in fact quite common in the Political Science literature to read that most independents are closet partisans. Alan Abramowitz recently argued many of the same points as Mellman over at Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball.

But much of the research on independent voters considers partisanship in a single election and rarely follows the same voters across multiple elections. When voters are followed across elections, the focus tends to be on presidential elections. With few exception, most elections since 1968 have featured an incumbent president seek re-election or a vice president seeking a promotion. As such candidate preference may be confounding party preference.

Are Independents independent in name only? No, not really. In The Myth of the Independent Voter, Keith et al., (1992) argued there has been little change in partisan attachment since the 1960s. Rather, the authors contend people identifying as Independents often reveal a preference for one of the two major parties when pressed to make a choice. These Leaners behave much the same as their more partisan counterparts with regard to issue positions and vote choice - this is the Mellman and Abramowitz argument. In a 2009 article in Electoral Studies, political scientist John Petrocick argued, “Leaners are partisans. Characterizing them as independents underestimates the partisanship of Americans…” Indeed, Petrocik penned the foundational research on leaners in 1974 and his conclusions that leaners were every bit as partisan as their more partisan counterparts has influenced much scholarship since. But a recent conference paper by Drew Kurlowski identified significan flaws in Petrocik's initial work. Research that I have been conducting suggests independent partisans are far more independent than Abramowitz, Mellman or others realize.

Most studies of partisanship often consider the views of leaners at a given point in time or their votes in a specific election or examine the stability of partisan identification by merging all partisans – Strong, Weak, or Leaning – together and measure macro-level party identification. These measure do not take into consideration the temporal nature of partisan attachment and the propensity to change party affiliation over time. Additionally, in an era of candidate-centered politics it is possible that independents express a preference for the party of the candidate that they have chosen to support. So it would not be surprising that an independent that leans Democratic votes the same as a Strong Partisan Democrat - in a specific election. But the Strong Partisan Democrat voted Democratic because of partisanship, the independent, however, may have voted Democrat and expressed a Democratic preference because of the candidate or even the conditions surrounding a specific election.

But the larger question really pertains to the size and stability of a governing coalition over time. For a President or a political party to succeed they must have a stable electoral coalition. If independent voters are the fastest growing segment of the electorate and if they are truly independent, then Democrats and Republicans need to worry about the rising number of independent partisans. But if folks like Mark Mellman are correct, then the parties can ignore the threat of the independent voter.

A review of ANES data from a panel survey that included 2000, 2002, and 2004, shows that independent Democrats and independent Republicans (roughly a third of each party) are much less attached to their party than either Weak or Strong partisans over time.

Of those respondents who self-identified as an independent Democrat in 2000, 31.4 percent no longer identified with the Democratic Party in 2002, nearly as many, 29.8 percent, no longer identified with the party in 2004. For Republican Leaners the results were similar, 27.2 percent no longer identified with the Republican Party in 2002, 26.1 percent in 2004.

Strong as well as Weak partisans left their respective parties at far smaller rates over time. Equally worthy of note, independent Democrats and Republicans who left their 2000 party were just as likely to identify with the opposition party in 2002 and 2004 as they were to simply identify as pure independents.

A review of 2004 partisan identification shows that fully one-third of independent Democrats and Independent Republicans in 2004 identified with another party or no party in 2000. Simply stated, partisan identification is much less stable among independent partisans and Eric McGhee and Daniel Krimm (in a 2009 issue of Polity) found that independent partisans are more moderate than Strong partisans - something my research shows as well.

Party switching is only one indication of party loyalty - voting is a far more telling indicator. Using the same panel survey, I explored the voting patterns of Democrats and Republicans across three Congressional elections and found that Democrats, especially independent Democrats, are less loyal to party over time.

As shown in Table 2, weak and independent partisans had roughly the same party loyalty in the 2000 election - but when looking at how those same folks voted in 2002 or 2004 independent partisans were considerably more likely to have defected and voted for the other party - anywhere from 25% to 45% simply switched sides. Party switching like that cannot be dismissed as myth.

Mellman and others are correct - independent Partisans do vote much like their Strong Partisan counterparts in a given election, but the ANES panel data suggests that a significant share of independent Partisans (between a quarter and a third) may well have a different partisan stripe by the next election cycle.
Fully 11% of the electorate are Pure independents, another 30% are independent Partisans (about 18% Democrats and 12% Republicans) and between 25% and 30% of these independent Partisans switch self-reported party affiliation and 25% to 45% change their party vote from election to election. At the very least, this suggests a 25% voting bloc that is quite volatile, quite independent - in a country where our presidential elections have been decided by margins of 7 percentage points or less since 2000 and the difference between the national two party vote share in House elections has averaged about 5 percentage points since 1990.

Independent voters are no myth, they matter, and (when you include among them independent Partisans) they absolutely sway elections. Indeed, the present and highly competitive political era in which we are living is a direct result of a decrease in partisan attachment among a growing number of voters.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Unholy Trinity: Redistricting, Closed Primaries, and the Money Chase

America's Dysfuntional Politics
In a report released last Winter, National Journal determined "the overall level of congressional polarization last year (2010) was the highest... recorded... every Senate Democrat compiled a voting record more liberal than every Senate Republican—and every Senate Republican compiled a voting record more conservative than every Senate Democrat." In the House "five House Republicans in 2010 generated vote ratings more liberal than the most conservative House Democrat" and "four Democrats produced ratings more conservative than the most liberal Republican... Every other House Republican produced a more conservative vote rating than every other House Democrat... Of the nine members who were outliers last year, only one... is still in Congress."

How have times changed? "In 1982... fully 344 House members received... vote ratings between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat." As for the Senate, " In... 1982... 36 Senate Democrats compiled records at least as conservative as the most liberal Republican... 24 Senate Republicans compiled voting records at least as liberal as the most conservative Democrat."

Put simply - Congress has no political center. This absence of a center makes compromise a near impossibility. That would not be a problem if one party clearly dominated in an era of unified government, but the present era is marked by a high level of party competition, tenuous holds on power, and divided government. The result? Gridlock.

Noted Congressional scholar Norm Ornstein summarized it like this "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."

So what has caused the polarization? This is actually a point of much contention. Scholars like Alan Abramowitz argue the polarization in Congress is reflective of an increasingly polarized public. Others, like Morris Fiorina contend the polarization is elite-driven. As argued in prior posts, I clearly agree with the Fiorina camp.

So if not reflective of a polarized public, what is driving the polarization. There is likely no one explanation, but rather a combination of factors. I put my money of the unholy trinity of partisan redistricting, closed nominating primaries, and the cost of campaigns.

Partisan Redistricting
Gerrymandering is not new (the terms dates to the early 1800s), but technological advances and high levels of political competition have elevated it to new levels. Some scholars argue gerrymandering cannot explain the polarization in House, because the Senate is polarized as well and polarization is evident in state legislatures and county councils. These scholars often fail to consider the prior elective experience of U.S. Senators. In the current Congress (and it's not an outlier) roughly two-thirds of the Senate held prior elective office in a seat subject to partisan redistricting - ranging from a U.S. House seat to a state legislative seat. And state legislative districts are often more gerrymandered than Congressional districts - one need look no farther than Maryland's state legislative districts.

In a study by Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal the authors concede that it is nearly impossible for a moderate to win in the nation's currently manipulated Congressional districts, but they see little evidence to support gerrymandering as the cause.  They contend it's difficult to gerrymander many states due to size and population and many have few districts, but this also ignores the impact of gerrymandered state legislative districts and the prior elective experience of U.S. House members. McCarty et al. determined as well that within the same district Democratic and Republican representatives compile distinctly divergent records. This of course can only be studied in districts that are competitive and where candidates from either party can win. Most districts in the U.S. are safe and the out-party has no hope of winning.

The authors note "Republicans are more likely to represent conservative districts, and Democrats are more likely to represent liberal ones" and concede "such an effect is consistent with the gerrymandering hypothesis,
but it is also consistent with a general geographic polarization of voters along ideological and partisan lines." Finally, they determined ideological sorting of candidates began in the 1980s, but this was before the upswing of polarization and before the decline in electoral competition in the House. There are problems with these conclusions as well.

As will be discussed later, the rise in the use of primary elections to select nominees began in the early 1970s and had become the norm by the 1980s. Most primary elections are cosed - meaning only Democrats can vote in Democratic primaries and only Republicans in a Republican primary. I dispute as well the contention that 1980s were not an era of increased competition in the House. In the election of 1980, Republicans won 34 seats and completely recovered from the electoral devastation of Watergate. At 192 seats, the GOP saw a path back to a majority. With a high number of conservative southern Democrats at times the GOP seemed to have a working control of the agenda in the early years of the Reagan presidency. Republicans suffered a setback in 1982, but the era of Democratic dominance was clearly over.

Closed Primaries
Following a series of party reforms in the late 1960s primary elections became the typical approach to selecting candidates for general election contests by the end of the 1970s. In an open primary voters are allowed to vote outside of their declared political party. This allows independents and moderates to have more of a say in government and in their elected officials. However, most states have closed primaries, where only partisans can participate. The result being a system where very few people determine the candidates on the general election ballot and those candidates reflect the preference of dedicated partisan - this means liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. As such, even in a competitive district the eventual winner is likely to be a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican (explaining one the findings by McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal).

Karen Kaufmann, James Gimpel, and Adam Hoffman studied the issue of open primaries and determined they attract more demographically representative voters; attract more centrist voters; and produce more moderate nominees than closed primaries.

As noted earlier, most Congressional districts are not competitive - somewhere in the neighborhood of 360 seats. In these seats, a Representative faces little threat from the opposing party in a general election. The greater threat comes from within the party in a primary election. This means Representatives must work to ensure support among their party's base voters (again liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans). As the chart below Demonstrates, partisan loyalty increases and increased significantly the safer the Congressional district. If primaries were open to all voters, regardless of party, the pressure would be quite different. Even if the Congressional districts were safe, base voters would not be selecting the candidates and the candidates would need to appeal to a broader swath of the electorate to secure a nomination. Of course the power of incumbency and safe seats make it quite difficult to challenge a sitting Representative - challenging and expensive.

Relationship between Partisan Loyalty and District Safety
(Source: National Journal - Pulling Apart)

The Money Game
According to OpenSecrets.org, the average House incumbent raised $1.5 million for their reelection campaign in 2010. The average challenger raised $265,000. The tremendous expense of House elections puts pressure on incumbents to raise money - just over $2,000 each day they are in office. Those voters with deeply held beliefs are the ones most likely to donate money. As demonstrated in a prior post, few folks make political contribution and those that do are far more ideologically polarized than those who do not.

Joseph Bafumi and Michael Herron have shown that members of Congress are not only more partisan than the median voter in their respective states, they are more partisan than their fellow partisan voters. Democrats in Congress are to the left of the median Democratic voter and Republicans to the right of the median Republican voter. The exception being campaign donors - elected officials are quite ideologically aligned with the folks who write the checks.

In “The Price of Leadership: Campaign Money and the Polarization of Congressional Parties,” Eric Heberlig, Marc Hetherington, and Bruce Larson determine the parties are driven by the need for money and support is given to candidates or incumbents who can raise it. The authors conclude, "a plausible new route into party leadership is by demonstrating fundraising capacity for the benefit of the party” and this has “changed the ideological composition of leadership." Once, parties sought to nominate candidates capable of building a coalition or managing legislation, but today fundraising has become the critical deciding factor.

The Unholy Trinity
Taken collectively, the unholy trinity of partisan redistricting, closed primaries, and the money chase offer a plausible explanation for our present levels polarization and dysfunction. Reforms aimed at fixing any one of the three would likely have little effect - rather all must be addressed. Legislation is pending in Congress that would require all states to adopt non-partisan redistricting reform, but such legislation has been introduced before and has been ignored. Seven states have adopted non-partisan, or bipartisan redistricting reforms - but these states hold only 88 of 435 seats. In most states, the parties are simply unwilling to surrender the power to gerrymander.

Roughly 28 states have closed or semi-closed primaries or closed caucuses. The structure and rules for primary elections are left up to the states and are often determined by the parties as independent entities. In states where citizens have pushed for open primaries, the parties have fought to maintain control over the candidate nomination process.

Public financing of presidential elections has been in place since the 1970s, but no such system exists for Congress. Though the Supreme Court has ruled you cannot place limits on private campaign spending, it is lawful to put limits on spending if an individual accepts public funding. Proposals for public funding of Congressional elections have been introduced in nearly every Congress since the early 1970s - but to no avail. Public financing would immediately remove a tremendous advantage enjoyed by incumbents and they do not appear eager to let that advantage go. Kenneth R. Mayer, Timothy Werner, and Amanda Williams studied state legislative elections in five states that offer public financing and determined competition generally increased after public financing was enacted, both in terms of the number of incumbents facing challengers, and the number of “competitive” races.

Competitive races, open primaries, and competition for the median voter instead of the partisan campaign donor. Congressional districts where voters pick their representative instead of incumbent representatives picking their voters.  Collectively these changes offer the hope of decreased polarization in Congress and the return to a functioning government. But the folks who would need to change the rules of the game are the same folks who know how to play the game as it is currently structured.  There is little indication that they are willing to rewrite those rules and invite a new group of players. So for now, let the dysfunction resume.

Shelby Perkins, a Political Science and Spanish major at St. Mary's College of Maryland contributed significantly to this post.