Tag: Campaign 2010

Structural explanations are not always sexy or gratifying, but they typically explain a lot

In the days after the US midterm elections cable news outlets, radio programs, political pundits, newspapers, and activists on both sides of the ideological spectrum have exerted a great deal of blood and sweat to explain the nationwide drubbing of the Democrats. Democrats are predictably covering their behinds—conceding voter anger, but cautioning that the country has not lurched to the right in just two years. Republicans are claiming validation of their position and a greater ideological alignment with the American people. Activists and enthusiasts of all stripes are weaving narratives that use the election results to validate their personal political perspective. The question, of course, is whether any of this is correct or meaningful. Was this election a mass repudiation of Democratic policies? Was it a validation of the Republican platform and/or Tea Party-style conservatives?

Elections are like Rorschach bots—everyone sees something different, and often times what they see is what they want to see. Particularly with elections, people like to place causation in the hands of people—agents—whose efforts, words, thoughts, etc, drive the outcome. And to be sure, individual agents can and do wield a great deal of influence on events. But an overemphasis on agents can lead to spurious conclusions about why something happens. You must also look at structural or environmental factors.

Over at the Monkey Cage, John Snides has a great piece precisely along these lines. Snides and his colleagues looked at which factors where the best predictors of voter choice:

If you had one thing, and one thing only, to predict which Democratic House incumbents would lose their seats in 2010, what would you take? The amount of money they raised? Their TARP vote? Their health care vote? Whether they had a Tea Party opponent? A Nazi reenactor opponent?

Not surprisingly, it’s none of those.

As is typically the case, the partisan makeup of a politician’s district mostly determines which candidate will win.  Snides and his colleagues found that the 2008 Presidential vote in a district explained 83% of the variation in the 2010 vote share (see graph below).

This data does not negate agent-centered factors, but it certainly dulls them.  Additionally, many of the theories being thrown about (the vote was a referendum on Obama, on Democrats, on “Big Government”, etc) just don’t have the explanatory power that the partisan makeup of a district has.

What’s clear is that, structurally speaking, the Democrats were set up for a shellacking.  Historically, the President’s party takes a big hit in the midterms, incumbents are punished in a poor economy (regardless of their control over it), and incumbents in swing districts will be the first to go.  Many of the seats Democrats gained in 2006 and 2008 to take a commanding majority in the House were obtained by targeting vulnerable Republicans in swing districts.  Conservative Democrats ran and won in those districts, meaning they faced a center-right electorate.  Given these structural factors, it is no surprise that the Democrats lost so many seats.

Structural explanations are not very sexy.  They don’t allow a ton of room for debate and analysis after the initial work is done.  By their nature, there isn’t a whole lot that can be done to alter the conditions (i.e. a reduced role for agency).  And they don’t really allow people to indulge in great philosophical and ideological satisfaction.  But, at the end of the day, they can be powerful explanations.  Democrats in 2006 and 2008 were overzealous in their interpretation of what those election results implied, and the same may happen to Republicans in 2010.  Savvy politicians and operatives should take heed.

[Cross-posted at Signal/Noise]

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U.S. Midterm Election Prediction Fest 2010

At Gallup, we are officially predicting–regardless of turnout level–at least 40 seats for Republicans.  Based on the numbers and our historical model, Republicans should land about 60+ House seats, easily gaining the majority.

Personally, I’ll say 65 just to be (arbitrarily) specific.  I’ll also predict that Republicans pick up 7 seats in the Senate, 3 short of a majority in that body.

What do you think? Feel free to leave your own predictions in the comments section.

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Election 2010: the Foreign Policy Elephant in the Room (updated)

CBS Nevada reporter Nathan Baca tried to approach [Sharron] Angle during a stroll through the airport and the airport parking lot with questions about her foreign policy views.

After going through several evasive answers, an irritated Angle replied: “I will answer those questions when I’m the senator.”

Much of the liberal reaction to Angle’s latest evasion of the press has taken the form of “if she can’t face reporters, how can she a U.S. Senator?” In light of Angle’s general bizarreness, I can understand the comparative lack of attention given to issue areas she refused to address. But, as Dan Drezner’s noted, the 2010 elections have been marked by an almost total absence of foreign-policy debate. That’s not surprising. The Obama Administration hasn’t exactly been “soft on terrorism,” the unemployment rate hovers near ten percent, and Republican politicians basically support U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. In short, international affairs doesn’t provide particularly rich soil for harvesting votes.

However, this election may prove quite consequential for U.S. foreign relations. Even if the the Democrats hold onto a slight majority in the Senate, the legislative branch is about to shift significantly rightward. This is not a terribly comforting thought, given that the current GOP combines an impoverished foreign-policy playbook with a scorched-earth mentality toward the Obama Administration.


Consider three signs of what’s to come.

First, Republican opposition to New START. While New START is not without its problems, none of them bear any resemblance to the outlandish criticisms offered up by the GOP. Even Robert Kagan admits that conservative objections to the treaty don’t justify blocking ratification. The charge that the administration, whose deterrence policies depend on a robust commitment to the Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) to Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD), is willing to let Moscow veto BMD policy, should strike any observer as particularly ludicrous.

New START is, in many respects, a rather modest nuclear arms-control agreement; the major differences between a world with and without ratification are twofold: in the latter, the U.S. (1) lacks important tools to monitor Russian nuclear happenings and (2) loses significant credibility when it comes to negotiating binding agreements with not only Moscow, but other foreign powers. Yet all indications are that the Republicans will block ratification.

Second, the tenor of Republican media on U.S. foreign-policy issues. For example, The 2010 Nuclear Security Summit contained its share of successes and failures. Among the latter was a series of botched attempts to forward Turkish-Armenian normalization, which only succeeded in undermining US-Turkish and US-Azerbaijan relations (the latter wasn’t even invited to the Summit). During all of this conservative media was interested in one burning question: was a stylized version of the Bohr model actually a quasi-secret sign of Obama’s interest in imposing Sharia law in the United States, appeasing Iran, or something. Otherwise, the summit was mostly met with conservative silence.

Third, the commitment to unlimited defense budgets. Even as conservatives criticize the Obama administration for record deficit spending, they still find time to complain that military spending is too low. Seriously. The “finest” foreign-policy minds in the GOP think the Obama Administration is jeopardizing U.S. military preparedness against decades-away threats by not pushing a sufficiently large increase in U.S. defense spending. That sound you hear is Zombie Eisenhower crying.

So we’re likely in for an opposition with international-affairs positions variously inherited from the Bush Administration, dictated by a desire to oppose and embarrass the President at every turn, and determined to avoid talking about substantive foreign-policy problems. The irony, of course, is that we desperately need a “loyal opposition” to highlight and correct serious failures in Obama foreign policy. Which we’re not likely to get.

Oh, goody. I can’t wait.

UPDATE: Foreign Policy’s list of influential GOP foreign-policy congresscritters pretty much makes the point.

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