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CrowdPAC, Candidate Ideology, and Measurement Validity

So there’s this new organization called CrowdPAC that aims to offer “The best objective data on US political candidates.” Using a somewhat undefined methodology (although there is more technical information available here), built on the work of Stanford Political Scientist and co-founder Dr. Adam Bonica, it rates each candidate in all of the various congressional contests on a 10L to 10C scale, with 10L being the most liberal and 10C being the most conservative. (There are a handful of people they rate 10L+ or 10C+, which means they are off the scale liberal or off the scale conservative.) Dr. Bonica’s work recently received some coverage over at the Monkey Cage, most notably because it challenges the dominant narrative that modern partisan polarization is being driven by Republicans rather than Democrats.

I am particularly happy to see this kind of work, especially because it is about candidates and not elected officials. (Much of my current research interest revolves around Proposition 14 and its effects, which are supposed to be about candidate behavior.) Boris Shor has another set of data on candidate positions, but he hasn’t released an update for 2014 yet.

I’m a little dubious of this data, however, and it is the score that they give Jerry McNerney (CA-9), the local representative here in the Central Valley, that spurred my concern. In 2012, according to Shor’s data, McNerney was more conservative than the average Democrat. I made the following graph last election cycle to demonstrate the ideological positions of McNerney and his 2012 Republican challenger, Ricky Gill. McNerney scored relatively close to 0, which is politically moderate.

AllCandidateScores

Shor’s measure tracks well with other measures of ideology as revealed through voting in Congress. The most commonly used measure of ideology in congressional studies is Poole and Rosenthal’s NOMINATE scores. (There are others, but this is the one that everyone talks about.) NOMINATE scores range from -1 (the most liberal member of Congress) to +1 (the most conservative member of Congress). Here too, McNerney comes out fairly moderate (-0.225). All of this should not be surprising for a candidate who has made veterans’ issues and clean energy his primary policy talking points.

So how does McNerney score in the CrowdPAC data? He gets a 9.4L, which is more liberal than Nancy Pelosi (6.8L), Barbara Lee (8.5L), and Maxine Waters (7.1L)–all of whom have strong reputations as liberal stalwarts in both Democratic and Republican circles. (Their respective NOMINATE scores are -0.398, -0.694, and -0.594.) Indeed, as the following graph shows, McNerney’s score puts him near the liberal edge of all Democratic candidates running in California. (Note: I’ve reversed the sign for liberal rankings so that a 10L is a -10 in the following graphs.)

crowdpac_dist

So something seems a bit off here.

One of the concepts we talk about in research methods is measurement validity–the degree to which a measure accurately captures the concept that you are trying to measure. One way to assess measurement validity is to compare its values with other, more well known measures of the same concept. (We call this convergent validity and use it to assess a measure’s content validity. This isn’t the whole of how we should test for content validity, but it is instructive as a start.) So let’s do that.

The following graph compares NOMINATE scores from the 112th Congress with the CrowdPAC measure for California’s candidates. While the two measures appropriately lump Republicans (upper right) and Democrats (lower left) together, there actually isn’t that strong of a correlation between the two measures within each party. Perhaps this disparity isn’t that surprising given that Dr. Bonica’s work disagrees with Poole and Roenthal’s on some important points, but it does raise concerns for me.

crowdpac_dw1

An alternative measure that I have been playing with recently is the National Journal’s conservative ranking. Similar to Poole and Rosenthal, National Journal examines member’s voting records and rates them on a liberal-conservative index. In this index, 0 is the most liberal a member can be and 100 is the most conservative. The rankings shown in the graph below are for current members of Congress. Again, while the groupings are roughly correct, within each party there isn’t much connection between the two scores. In one case, Eric Swalwell (CA-15), CrowdPAC offers a dramatically different rating than National Journal. (Removing Swalwell actually lowers the correlation coefficient for the Democrats to 0.015.) McNerney by National Journal’s measure is on the moderate side of the California Democratic delegation with a score of 38.5.

crowdpac_njcr

For the record, the correlation coefficient for the National Journal rating and NOMINATE for Democrats is 0.645 and for Republicans is 0.698. Unlike all of the above coefficients, these last two are statistically significant at conventional levels (i.e., α = 0.05).

All of this is to say that I am somewhat torn about this new measure. On the one hand, it is fantastic to get any measure of candidate ideology. It allows us to assess questions of whether competitive districts lead to more moderate candidates. The answer according to this data appears to be: No, competitive districts do not lead to more moderate candidates, even controlling for the presence of an incumbent. The following graph shows the CrowdPAC score plotted against the normalized presidential vote (NPV; i.e., how much more or less a district supported Obama in 2012 compared to the average district nationwide). If the competitiveness of a district was related to the ideology of the candidates running in it, we ought to see the dots getting closer to each other as the NPV gets closer to zero. (The lines are LOWESS regression lines for each party’s members.) They don’t.

corwdpac_npv2

On the other hand, I have serious doubts about the validity of the measure. So my hope is that in future iterations it will get better.

Good News for California’s Minor Parties

Yesterday, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB 2351, which breathes new life into California’s collection of minor parties. To understand how it does so, we need to go back to one of my favorite topics: Proposition 14.

Under Prop. 14, only the top-two vote getters in a contest make it to the November election. In statewide contests like Governor, Lt. Governor, Insurance Commissioner, and so forth, this effectively means that the contest will be between the Republican and Democratic candidates. Indeed, this year no third party candidates made it to the November ballot. In the last decade plus of California elections, the highest total any third party candidate received was about 6.5 percent of the vote. The Republican and Democratic candidates by themselves averaged about 90 percent of the total vote.

Why is this important? Because under California’s old law, the easiest way political parties maintained their ballot qualification status by receiving two percent of the vote for a statewide office in the November election. The following table shows all the minor party candidates that achieved this level of support in the 2010 elections. If no third party candidates appear on the November ballot, then parties could not maintain their status this way.

partyqual

If parties do not receive two percent of the vote, they can maintain their ballot status by registering voters equal to one percent of the total gubernatorial vote; that is, they have to get enough people to register with their party when the individuals register to vote. As the above table shows, most of the minor parties in California could maintain their ballot status this way. One in particular–the Peace and Freedom Party, which has a long and rich tradition in California politics–does not have enough registrants to maintain its ballot status. (We won’t really talk about the Americans Elect Party because it is a failed third-way experiment from the 2012 election.) In a high turnout gubernatorial election (not this year but maybe in 2018), the Green and Libertarian parties would be challenged to maintain their status.

So why is AB 2351 such good news? It changes the standards for the parties to maintain their status in two important ways. First, it moves the two percent requirement from the November election to the June election. The Green Party had three candidates cross this threshold this year (Jena Goodman for Lt. Governor, David Curtis for Secretary of State, Laura Wells for Controller, and Ellen Brown for Treasurer). The Libertarian Party had one candidate (Jonathan Jaech for Attorney General). The Peace and Freedom Party had also had one candidate (Nathalie Hrizi for Insurance Commissioner).  Only the American Independent Party failed to cross the two percent threshold. Second, it reduces the number of registrants required to maintain ballot status from one percent of the November gubernatorial vote to just 0.33 percent of the total statewide registration. All of the parties (save Americans Elect) meet this requirement.

What we have here is a nice bit of reform. The old rules made it almost impossible for the California’s minor parties to continue and contest elections. Recognizing this, the legislature changed the rules so that the minor parties won’t be forced from the ballot.

Well, they won’t be forced from the June ballot at least. We still won’t seem them in November.

Six California’s No More

September 12, 2014 Leave a comment

Well, darn. The plan to split California into six separate states died before it even hit the ballot. Not that there was ever any chance of this proposal ever becoming a reality, but we don’t even get to debate its merits (or lack thereof) for the next two years.

The proposed six states.

A note to all you would be initiative sponsors out there: Yes, people will sign a lot of what you shove in their faces outside the grocery store or the mall. They won’t put much thought into whether they are signing the right form, whether they can legally sign it, or whether they are signing their own name or someone else’s name, though. Draper’s organization submitted 1,150,000 signatures hoping to get at least the needed 807,615 valid signatures. They weren’t able to get there, falling about 50,000 short.

Count me as disappointed.

California’s Gubernatorial Debate

September 5, 2014 1 comment

If a debate happens and nobody pays any attention, does it really happen?

A full two months before the November election, California’s incumbent governor, Jerry Brown, and his challenger, Neel Kashkari, squared off for their one and only debate. It was a testy affair, and Kashkari desperately tried to create some heat for his campaign.

Yeah. About that.

Here are some screen grabs from some of California’s major newspapers. See if you can spot the theme:

Let’s start with the best home-page coverage, the San Jose Mercury News:

MercuryNews

So far, so good. Now something a little less prominent but still heavily featured, the Sacramento Bee:

Bee

Okay. Still pretty good. There’s a picture there, and it seems to be the main article. Now, SFGate (the free version of the San Francisco Chronicle):

Chronicle

Uh, oh. According the Chronicle editors, you the reader are likely to care more about the price of a 49ers game, real estate in Berkeley, or how to successfully quit your job than you are the debate. Well, San Francisco is a hot bed of liberalism. Maybe it’s an aberration.

Here’s two conservative papers, though, the Orange County Register and the Riverside Press Enterprise.

Register

There’s no mention of the debate at all here. None at all.

PressEnterprise

A monster-sized boulder is apparently more important than the gubernatorial debate to the readers in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Finally, from the Los Angeles Times:

LATimes

Yeah. No debate here either. (Although maybe the story about the grocery bags is a stealth attempt to get people to read about the debate. Brown did say during the debate that he would probably sign the bill banning plastic grocery bags in California.)

So, summing up. There was a debate last night between the two people running for governor in California. It’s the only debate that will happen between these two people. Only half of the state’s major newspapers think it was worth your attention. (Or, more accurately, think you care enough about it to feature it on their home-page.)

Admittedly, I haven’t seen the print editions of these newspapers. Maybe the debate is above the fold there. Most people don’t get their news from print editions any more, though.

———-

P.S. If you are wondering where all the adds are (the LA Times site has a lot of white space, for example), they aren’t being displayed because I use Ad Block Plus on my Chrome browser.

Don’t Blame Prop. 14 for Low Turnout

 

Admittedly I am picking a fight without reading the whole article (because it is behind a pay wall), but in today’s Ventura Star Timm Herdt lays out an argument that Prop. 14’s top-two system of elections is partly to blame for the incredibly low turnout (gated) that we saw in California on Tuesday. He calls the system a failure. While I am not a big fan of the top-two system as it has been implemented in California, I don’t think that you can blame it for just 18% of California’s registrants showing up to vote (or, again, more likely mailing their ballots in).

We are not the only state that uses the top-two system. Washington does as well. In fact, our system is explicitly modeled on Washington’s system. The following graph shows the percent of registrants voting in Washington’s elections from 1952 to 2012 (their first 2014 election will be in August). During the period up to 2002 (the first vertical line), Washington used the blanket primary. After the Supreme Court held the blanket primary unconstitutional, it switched to an open primary system (what they called “pick a primary”) for the 2004 and 2006 elections. In 2008 (the second vertical line), Washington adopted the top-two system, which it has used ever since.

Washington State Turnout

Note that turnout hasn’t cratered in Washington as it has in California. Indeed, turnout in the last three elections looks an awful lot like turnout in the prior elections. Admittedly, these numbers are for the November elections. If we look at the last five primaries (2004-2012), though, we see the same pattern. The turnout numbers are 45.1% (2004), 38.8% (2006), 42.6% (2008), 41.0% (2010), and 38.5% (2012). Again, there is no major drop-off in voter turnout once the top-two system was adopted in Washington.

So why the low turnout if it’s not the top-two system? There are lots of possibilities. Off the top of my head I would offer: The marginalization of the Republican Party in California politics, the fact that we have a popular governor running for re-election, the fact that there were no interesting ballot initiatives to vote on, the fact that there are no major controversies animating California politics right now, and the fact that more people think the state is headed in the right direction. As I said before, it was a boring, low-salience election. There was very little to get people excited about voting. Those are the places where I would look to explain low turnout, not the top-two system.

 

Thoughts on the June 3 Election

Californians (at least a very small number of us) went to the polls yesterday (well, most of us mailed back our ballots and didn’t actually go to the polls). Here are some thoughts, in no particular order of importance:

  • Turnout was really, really, really low–even for a boring election like this one. Right now it looks like turnout among registered voters (who we think are likely to vote because they bothered to register) will be a mere 18.5%. In 2010 and 2006, registered turnout was 33%. This is voter participation looks like in an election where the most compelling statewide race is the Secretary of State contest and there are no big, sexy ballot initiatives to draw people’s attention.
  • At least locally, this election looks to be as close to an all-mail election as we’ve seen in a long time. Last week, over 42,000 mail ballots had been returned to the Registrar’s office. As of this morning, the Registrar reports that just over 50,000 people voted in San Joaquin County. Even assuming that no more mail ballots were submitted (problematic), that means that about 85% of the ballots cast were cast through the mail.
  • Unless I have missed something, there will be no minor party candidates on this fall’s ballot. There will be a handful of No Party Preference candidates, but no minor party candidates were among the top two vote getters in any partisan contest.
  • In 2012, the Democrats blew a great opportunity to pick up the 31st congressional district. The district tilts slightly Democratic in its presidential/gubernatorial voting and in its voter registration, but no Democrat appeared on the November ballot in 2012 because the Democrats could not coordinate and settle on a single candidate. They almost did it again this year. Pete Aguilar, the top vote getter among the four (!) Democrats in the district, received just 390 more votes than the second-place Republican, Lesli Gooch. Aguilar should win against Paul Chabot in November, though.
  • Locally, the state and national contests were largely cake-walks for the incumbents. Jerry McNerney (D, CA-9) received more than 50% of the vote. Jeff Denham (R, CA-10) got more than 57% of the vote. The Assembly and State Senate members all coasted as well (though not all with as large a vote margin).
  • Also, remember, no matter what they say in the media, yesterday’s election was not a primary.

Prop. 14’s Electoral System

A quick reminder: Despite what you hear in the media and despite what it says on your ballot, the California June election is not a primary election.

What is a primary election? I usually discourage students from using dictionary definitions in their papers, but the exercise is useful here. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics defines a primary election as an “intra‐party election enabling voters to participate in the selection of candidates.” Indeed, as Alan Ware documents in his book, The American Direct Primary, primary elections were adopted in the United States precisely so that political parties could regain control over their nominees. The defining feature of a primary election is that rank-and-file party members get to participate in the selection of their party’s nominees for office.

Did you catch that? In a primary election, party members select party nominees for office. Because of Prop. 14, that’s not what will happen in the June election.

In the June election, voters from every political party will go the polls (or, more likely, fill out their ballots at home and then mail them back) and cast their vote for their preferred candidate. While the vast majority of people will cast a ballot for someone from their own political party, there is no requirement to do so. If you are a Republican and you want to vote for a Democrat, you get to do so. If you are a Democrat and you want to vote for a Republican, you can. (I’d say something about voting for a minor party candidate, but there are so few of them that most of us won’t get that option.) The two candidates who receive the most votes will then face each other in the November election. There is no requirement that the candidates be from different parties. If two Republicans receive more votes than the top Democrat, then the two candidates on the November ballot will both be Republicans. If two Democrats receive the most votes, then there will be no Republicans on the November ballot.

So if it’s not a primary election (despite almost everyone claiming that it is), what is the June election? It’s the first stage of a majority-runoff system of elections. As I wrote in my article:

Although there is some debate about the exact classification of California’s new electoral system, most scholars would identify the Proposition 14 system as a variant of majoritarian runoff elections. Riker (1983, 754), for example, defines such a system as one with “three or more candidates with two ballots, in which at the first ballot the winners are the two candidates with the largest and second largest number of votes, and, at the second ballot between exactly these two, the winner is the candidate with a simple majority.” Lijphart (1995, 18) refers to both the Louisiana and Georgia systems [which share characteristics with California's system] as majority runoff systems (see also Norris 1997; Engstrom and Engstrom 2008). Cox (1997) labels these electoral systems “single-member dual-ballot” systems.

So if you are from California, as you sit around and discuss who you will vote for in June don’t use the word “primary.” It doesn’t apply to the election you will be voting in.

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