Monday, November 11, 2013

The Roots of Polarization are Complicated

This week, I tackled the causes of polarizations in a new article for Symposium Magazine. It's not just redistricting--or even mostly redistricting. And, unfortunately, polarization won't be going anywhere soon. You can read the piece here.

There's also an interview with Democratic Congressman Rush Holt, a former physics professor, about his life as an academic in public life. Give it a read

(For the record, there are at least two former political science professors currently serving in Congress: Congressman Dan Lipinski, Democrat of Illinois, and Congressman David Price, Democrat of North Carolina).

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Power of the Presidency is the Power to Persuade--Really?

In 1960, Richard Neustadt penned the seminal study of the American Presidency: Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents. The book really lay the cornerstone for the behavioral revolution in presidential studies and political scientists still assign the book to undergraduate students. In fact, I'm teaching it right now and re-reading portions as I prepare for class discussion today.

And, as I do my prep, I wonder how useful the book is today in an era of polarized political parties.

Neustadt's main argument is that, in a government with separate institutions sharing powers, the chief power of the president is the power to persuade. He claims that if the president has to resort to his formal powers to achieve his objectives, he's already failed and is likely to pay a high price that will further undermine his persuasive capital in future endeavors. To be effective, a president must husband his prestige among the Washington elite and convince other political players that their interests are aligned with the presidents.

Fundamentally, the political landscape has changed tremendously since Neustadt wrote the book. As well-documented elsewhere, the 1960s was an unusual moment in political time when the parties were relatively heterogeneous ideologically and members of Congress represented diverse and competitive congressional districts. Presidents could effectively marshal public opinion with the bully pulpit because the pulpit that mattered was the Washington press corps, and there were only a few television networks to command the attention of the American people.

Oh, how the times have changed.

The media elite no longer have the sway or swagger they once did. Traditional media empires are struggling to stay alive. As fewer people read them, newspapers are folding and consolidating. People are increasingly aligning their political beliefs with the blogs they read and the newspapers they subscribe to. And members of Congress are less trapped in the bubble of the Washington establishment than ever. They spend more than half the time at home in their congressional districts, and very rarely mingle across party lines. Members of Congress depend even less on the president to win elections and hold their seats. In ideologically polarized districts, the elections that matter are primaries and not the generals; giving into a president and compromising draws grumbles from the party base and ever more successful primary challengers who are ever more extreme. Just ask Dick Lugar and Bob Bennett the price of appearing too willing to go along with the other party. Here in Montana, Republican Steve Daines has received his fair share of gripes from members of his own party when he voted to re-open government. One candidate, Champ Edmunds, is reconsidering his decision to switch to the House race and may opt to challenge Daines in the primary once Daines makes his widely anticipated Senate campaign official.

Neustadt wrote that "the essence of a President's persuasive task, with congressmen and everybody else, is to induce them to believe that what he wants of them is what their own appraisal of their own responsibilities requires them to do in their interest, not his" (p. 40). That might have been possible in 1960. But in 2013? A nigh impossible task. Consider the healthcare debate and debacle. Not a single Republican member of Congress voted for the Affordable Care Act. In fact, Republicans want to actively repeal the law and, as I read this morning in the National Journal, Republican legislators have placed numerous obstacles in states with the express objective to make the law unworkable. How can the president exercise persuasion  when the objectives of the two parties is at cross-purposes?

And the President is not blameless. Although a grand show was made to appear inclusive during the development of ACA, the president knew--ultimately--that he had enough votes in both chambers to push through legislation without Republican involvement and input. In fact, the final piece of ACA was implemented using fast track reconciliation procedures--to the dismay of many Republican legislators.

How can the president--or anyone--be persuasive in an environment when the bargaining tool kit has been left bare? The president has no electoral mandate--he won reelection in a tight contest. The president has no congressional coattails. The president can't campaign in congressional districts where a Republican member of Congress is cross-pressured--hardly any exist. The president can't even campaign in districts where Democrats are moderate or conservative because that might endanger their reelection. The president can't lubricate the legislative process with earmarks--those have become toxic in this political environment and have been eliminated in the House. The president can't marshal the public's attention in a fragmented, narrowcasted media environment. Worse, neither side can attend even to the simplest  functions of government without using the opportunity to gain political leverage. The debt crisis and government shutdown are a case in point. No bargaining occurred and that was never the point. It was about bludgeoning each side into submission while satisfying the base of each party to raise campaign cash. No wonder no one escaped unscathed from the sorry escapade.

Neustadt is right on one point. When the president fails to persuade and relies on his formal powers, he admits failure and pays a hefty political price. The problem is the failure to persuade is not the president's failure alone today. It is a failure of the political system which has, for all intents and purposes, made it impossible for institutions sharing power to bargain. Instead, we have institutions hording power. The result is dysfunction and an increasingly frustrated American public. Will that frustration lead to some grand swell up from the masses for political change? We can only hope, but that hope belies political realities.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Lessons in Statistics: The New MSU-Billings Poll

I saw on my Twitter feed that MSU-Billings has come out with it's latest Montana public opinion poll. You can read the article about the poll findings here and go look at the full report here. I take some issue with how this poll was reported and how some folks are talking about it in the Twitter-verse.

First, let's talk gay marriage. The poll results indicated that a plurality of Montanans favor gay marriage, with 46.6 in favor and 42 percent opposed. The problem with this statement is the margin of error in the poll is 5 percentage points. This means a majority of Montanans might actually support gay marriage (5+46.6 is 51.6 percent) OR less than a plurality support it (46.6-5 = 41.2). So, is not accurate to say that a plurality of Montanans support gay marriage. It would be better to say that opinion on gay marriage is mixed and that support for gay marriage is statistically tied with opposition to it.

Second, let's talk about job approval ratings. Montana Cowgirl, one of the Montana state politics blogs I follow, sent a Tweet saying that Steve Daines is the most unpopular politician in the state. Here are the job approval numbers in the poll:

Steve Bullock, Approval: 53 percent.
Jon Tester, Approval: 44.7 percent
Max Baucus, Approval: 44.1 percent
Steve Daines, Approval: 39 percent

Remember that margin of error? We can confidently say that Steve Bullock is more popular than Steve Daines because the Bullock's approval rating could be as low as 49 percent or as high as 58 percent. Bullock might be as popular as Tester and Baucus, and Steve Daines might be as popular as Tester and Baucus. Or Steve Daines might really be the most unpopular elected official (39-5 = 34). But we cannot confidently, based upon these results, say that Steve Daines is the most unpopular elected official with the large margin of error.

What is most interesting, however, the number of folks who are undecided about Daines and Bullock relative to the senators:

Baucus, undecided: 16.9
Tester, undecided: 15.9
Daines, undecided: 37
Bullock, undecided: 33

What this tells me, and I can stay this with statistical confidence, is that Steve Bullock and Steve Daines are the least KNOWN statewide elected officials. And, look at the disapproval numbers:

Bullock, dispprove: 14
Daines, disapprove: 24
Tester, disapprove: 39.4
Baucus, disapprove: 39

Looked at this way, I could say with confidence that more Montanans who can express an opinion on on Tester and Max Baucus neither clearly approve or disapprove of the job they are doing. I can also say, however, that among those who express an opinion on Daines' job that more approve of the job he's doing than disapprove (39-5 = 34, and 24+5=29). He and Bullock are the only ones according to these numbers who have a statistically discernible pro-job approval rating outside the margin of error.

Clearly, among those Montanans who express an opinion on Steve Bullock really like the job he's doing. I suspect that part of that has to do with a) Bullock's not associated with the mess and Washington and b) the legislature has gone home, so he's not associated with any divisive doings in Helena at the moment. Main lesson: It's good to be the Governor when Washington is blowing up.

All three of our federal officeholders likely have depressed job approval numbers because of the government shutdown and the debt crisis. What will be interesting to watch is whether Daines, in particular, can increase his approval ratings among those who are currently undecided about him.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Steve Daines, the Shutdown, and What it Means for The Montana Senate Race—if Anything….

I recently wrote in a magazine piece that the Democrats should, just by looking at historical trends, have a bad year in the midterm elections (see the piece here). One take away message from the two week plus government shut down is that the Republican Party was hurt tremendously in the eyes of the public. According to a recent WSJ-NBC News poll, only 24 percent of respondents have a favorable view of the Republican Party and by a 22 point margin put more of the blame for the shutdown on the Republican Party as opposed to President Obama.

Democrats might gloat over all of this, but I agree with other assessments that the voting public is not only notoriously fickle, they are quite forgetful. Republicans can certainly hope with some degree of confidence that by the midterms come along in November, the debt crisis will be a distant memory in the minds of voters.

But the Democrats won something else when they reopened government and lifted the debt ceiling: They planted the seeds for more histrionics when voters will be paying closer attention. As the result of the agreement made in the Senate, the federal government is reopened for about 90 days—and the new debt ceiling will be breached in February 2014. Again, House Republicans will be placed between a rock and a hard place this winter: Should they again attempt to use the debt ceiling to again demand more cuts in spending and changes in the Affordable Care Act? If they don’t make good on their promises to their base—who want these cuts and want to rollback ACA—they risk demoralizing that base going into a crucial midterm election where they stand to make serious gains in the Senate. 

If Republicans do not use this opportunity to pursue these goals, establishment Republicans risk more primary challenges that could, in low turnout elections, produce Republican nominees so far to the right of center that they cannot hope to win a general election campaign against a centrist Democrat. Republicans probably lost five solid pick up opportunities in the Senate over the past two cycles because their nominees were too extreme relative to general electorate (Delaware, Colorado, Nevada, Indiana, and Missouri). Senators Cochran, Alexander, Graham, and McConnell all voted for the debt limit and shutdown deal and all have drawn Tea Party challengers who could exploit their votes.  Conversely, if the House Republicans do shut down government again, they also risk the party’s standing among the electorate and boost the election prospects of Democrats during an election cycle where they should—given the fundamentals—perform poorly.

Democrats should privately be gleeful that the temporary solution will shine the uncomfortable gridlock glare once again on the GOP, making them have to make some very difficult choices in the months ahead that—either way—will have electoral consequences.

Finally, relating this to Montana directly, the whole situation puts Republican Congressman Steve Daines in quite a sticky wicket. Daines voted with his Republican House colleagues to defund ACA and to repeal the medical device tax—both positions that were unpalatable to President Obama and Senate Democrats and which precipitated the government shutdown. Montana Democrats have gleefully exploited this situation, calling Daines “Shutdown Steve” and pointing to the deleterious effects of the shutdown on Montana’s economy—in particular the closure of our two national parks.
On the other hand, Daines—like other House members eyeing Senate campaigns—joined 86 other House Republicans for the compromise plan developed in the Senate that reopened government. Daines has also attempted on other occasions to strike a more moderate pose, such as supporting the Violence against Women Act. Daines is carefully trying to keep the Tea Party support with him while also appearing to more centrist elements within the party. It was likely these more centrist or moderate elements that abandoned Rehberg for Tester in 2012—likely costing him the election.
I suspect that the last thing Daines wants is to have continual shutdown and debt ceiling crises erupting during a general election campaign—whether he chooses to remain in the House or run for the Senate (and, to be clear, I believe he is running for the Senate). It forces him to make tough, thankless decisions, keeps him in Washington and off the campaign trail, and finally, it raises the ugly specter of running as a Republican in an environment where the Republican Party would likely to continue receiving the bulk of the blame for any impasse in Washington.

In 1995 and 1996, congressional Republicans were overwhelmingly blamed for the government shutdown. History repeated itself again during the 2013 shutdown. The simple fact of the matter is it is far easier for voters to blame Congress for all the ills they don’t like about Washington. Congress has always been the least popular branch, and in head to head showdowns with a President, it is hard for them to win given the president’s inherent advantage in his use of the bully pulpit and the fact this president himself remains personally popular even if voters disapprove of his policies.  

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Westward Shift of Congressional Political Power

I'm putting together some information for a brief introductory chapter to my book on the Tester-Rehberg race to make the case for why those outside Montana should read a book about the 2012 campaign here. One reason among several for why I think this race is important concerns the dramatic shift in regional power that has occurred in the House of Representatives over the past century. The Montana race matters because Montana is in the West and the West has become a political powerhouse in Congress. As the West rises, not only do uniquely Western issues (such as water and public land policy) suddenly take on new significance, the West plays a more substantial role in shaping the policy debate on larger national questions.

To illustrate the power shift, I cobbled together data on the House seats apportioned to each region by decade. I define each region as follows:

East: The six New England states and the Mid-Atlantic states including Delaware and Maryland.

The Midwest/Plains: Includes Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota.

The South: The eleven states of the old Confederacy.

The West: Everything else, including Alaska and Hawaii.

This first graph illustrates the percentage of House seats apportioned to each region by decade. I include estimates for the 2020 congressional apportionment from a piece written by Sean Trende at RealClear Politics in late 2012. You can read that article here.

The second graph is a simple pie chart illustrating the seat percentages by region during the 1900s.

And, for comparison, that same pie chart but using the 2020 reapportionment projections.

This illustrates the dramatic effects population shifts westward and southward have had politically. The Midwest utterly dominated the House at the turn of the century with 40 percent of the seats. By 2020, the West--which accounted for only 5 percent of House seats in the 1900s--will surpass the Midwest as the most powerful political region in the chamber with 105 seats. The Midwest will only have 103 seats. And although the South became the region with the most seats by the 1990s and will continue to add seats through 2020, the South has always been a politically powerful region in the House. In the 1900s, the South held a quarter of seats in the House of Representatives. In 2020, it will hold 33 percent--an increase of eight percentage points. The West, if projections hold, will have increased its share of seats by nineteen percentage points over the same period.

Short answer to why the 2012 Senate race matters is simple. Because the West matters. So goes the West, so goes the nation?