The Difference Between Journalists and Political Scientists (One More Time)

February 28, 2015 Leave a comment

Time again for our weekly contribution from an introductory political science student. This week Claudia Valencia offers this National Journal article suggesting that Hillary R. Clinton isn’t quite the slam dunk to be elected president in 2016 that some in the media may incline us to believe. 

The point has been made many times by now, but unlike journalists who often focus on personalities and the short-term events of campaigns (who won the straw poll at CPAC now?), political scientists try to isolate the fundamental factors affecting how people vote.

But political scientists who specialize in presidential-race forecasts aren’t relying on their guts. They’ve built statistical models that draw on the history of modern presidential campaigns (since Harry Truman’s reelection in 1948) to determine with startling accuracy the outcome of the next White House contest.

Political scientists may not tell the most colorful stories, but they are likely to help you keep your eye on the critical fundamentals. 

Categories: Uncategorized

And Oscar’s Campaign Contributions Go To . . .

February 22, 2015 Leave a comment

Last weekend was really busy and I failed to post a news item from my introductory US government and politics class. Sorry about that. We had some very interesting submissions, really we did.

Lots of interesting articles and posts sent in by my students again this week. Everything from evidence that Barack Obama really hearts America to Oklahoma’s efforts to spin the AP history exam to a fascinating article about Trinity Industries’ efforts to lobby states’ attorneys general.

But it’s Oscars night. The celebrities are on the red carpet and, so, our featured article this week has an Academy Awards theme.

Political Scientists love data and while federal election law may not do much to discourage floods of money going into campaigns, it has provided us with lots of data about who gives how much to whom.

Analysts from Crowdpac, a group that compiles campaign finance data, examined records of actors, producers, directors and crew members who worked on this year’s Oscar-nominated films in search of a correlation between the message of their film and the political views of their creators.

Crowdpac assigned each person a score based on their donor history, ranking them from most liberal to most conservative. The analysts then tallied an average score for each Best Picture-nominated movie.

Here’s how it breaks down for the Oscar-nominated films (film/liberal index (out of 10)/number of donors/total contributions):

Imitation Game – 9.4L (4 donors – $4,441)

Birdman – 9.2L (16 donors – $518,602)

Selma – 9L (8 donors – $448,408)

Boyhood – 8.7L (11 donors – $39,515)

Whiplash – 8.6L (7 donors – $33,859)

Grand Budapest Hotel – 8.4L (6 donors – $23,500)

Theory of Everything – 6.3L (1 donor – $19,281)

American Sniper – 3.1L (9 donors – $55,959)

It won’t surprise many to see that the donors associated with these films tend to the liberal end of the spectrum, or that American Sniper is the least liberal-leaning film in tonight’s competition.

But maybe there is room for a methodological debate here. After all, if you follow the Auteur theory of cinema, maybe we should only count donations from a film’s director (and maybe screenwriter). I mean, do the Key Grip’s contributions really affect the politics of a film?

Categories: Uncategorized

Could Republicans Replace Obamacare?

February 8, 2015 Leave a comment

My introductory US politics students have concluded their multi-week immersion in playing the Reacting to the Past Game–America’s Founding: The Constitutional Convention of 1787 and having adopted an interesting draft for a constitution, they are returning to a more traditional classroom mode.

This week they began in earnest to nominate news articles or blog posts that they think raise interesting issues about US government and politics. I’ll be featuring one or two of their nominations each week for the next few months.

First up is Freda Pu, who found this interesting Wonkblog post called Here’s How the GOP Would Repeal and Replace Obamacare.

Writes Freda,

In class we briefly touched upon medicare and how politics and the supreme court impacts federal decisions. This article was posted two days ago and I thought it was interesting because prior towards this article I was not aware that the republican party wants to change the current obama health care plan.

Of course, another question is whether even though they now control both houses of Congress, Republicans could pass replacement legislation. Claire Stevens nominated a Politico story examining the difficulties of getting the House and Senate on the same page on immigration policy.

Claire says,

I think that it illustrates something that we have seen repeatedly over the course of the [Reacting to the Past Game]. This article is about how the House and the Senate are having trouble getting certain things passed, or even debated about, and how the members of Congress are having to walk a tightrope, so to speak, with their actions. This relates both to playing the [game], where multiple characters held to (or tried, at least) their opinions without wavering or wanting to give much of any consensus. At the same time, it also illustrates the balance of power idea, and how sometimes it balances power in such a way that nothing really gets done.

Claire might have added that Madison in Federalist #51 anticipated that the Senate would often serve as a check on the enthusiasms of the House.

American Government and Politics Students on Current Events

January 19, 2015 Leave a comment

This semester my students are monitoring the news and sending me their weekly suggestions articles to read about events and issues they think are interesting and important for students of American politics to follow. Every week I will be posting the top articles that they send me here.

I did not receive many suggested articles last week, It was the first week of classes and students are busy preparing for an intensive simulation of the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

However, Juan Aguirre did send a link to this article about terror cells in Belgium.

Dealing with what may be a new phase of terrorist operations will create problems for governments all over the world, including the U.S.

Watch us every week for more news items suggested by my students.

Categories: Uncategorized

Responding to Skelton Again

George Skelton writes:

California Legislature is looking more moderate due to voting reforms

… [V]oters adopted the “top two” open primary. Starting in 2012, candidates didn’t seek party nominations. They sought to finish in the top two, regardless of party, and qualify for the November election. That meant they needed to attract voters outside their own party bases.

In theory, this would result in the election of more moderates and fewer party extremists. That also is happening.

My response:

CA_Polarization

Yeah, no. Sorry, George, wrong again. California has been and continues to be one of the most polarized legislatures in the country. If anything, despite the claims to the contrary, we have become even more polarized since the adoption of the top two system (which, by the way, is not a primary).

[h/t Rick Hasen]

 

Spot the Missing Voters

Although some of the (provisional) ballots are still being counted, it appears that incumbent Democrat Jerry McNerney has coasted to reelection this year against his Republican challenger Tony Amador in our local congressional district. Without even debating Amador (there’s some question about why that happened) and essentially running as low key a campaign as possible (though not nearly as low key as Gov. Brown’s), McNerney will be going back to Washington, DC, in 2015 for at least another two years.

If all you look at is the top line number, though, this year’s election seems a lot closer than 2012’s. This year, McNerney won with 51.5% of the vote. In 2012, against Ricky Gill, McNerney won with 55.6% of the vote.

Does this mean that Amador, despite raising just $62,000 compared to Gill’s $3,000,000, was a better candidate than Gill? I don’t think that’s the conclusion to be drawn here. Instead, I think the larger story is the disappearance of a large number of (Democratic) voters, especially in San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties.

The following graph shows the number of votes received by each candidate by county. (The numbers will go up ever so slightly for both Amador and McNerney this cycle as the provisional and late arriving mail ballots are processed, but the overall differences won’t change significantly.)

CD9Votes

In every county, Gill out-polled Amador. In every county, McNerney’s 2012 campaign out-polled his 2014 campaign. McNerney’s losses in 2014, however, were ever so larger than Amador’s, thus the closer contest. Overall, McNerney’s vote total fell by 66% in 2014 compared to 2012. Amador’s vote total in 2014 was 60% lower than Gill’s was in 2012.

Does this mean that a better candidate could have defeated McNerney this cycle? Given the strong showing of Republicans nationally I’ll admit that it’s a possibility, but I don’t think it would have been very likely. I think the 2012 results still show how hard it will be for a Republican to win in this district. Gill had the disadvantage of running as someone who had never held elected office (just like Amador) and in a presidential election year when the Democrats did well. (Amador, having run for office several times, was perhaps more familiar to Republican voters.) Gill, however, was able to raise and spend $3 million, with outside groups kicking in another $3 million on his behalf. And he still lost by over 11 points.

Top Two and Polarization

One of the central claims made by proponents of the top two system of election is that by opening up the electorate–forcing candidates to compete for the full spectrum of voters rather than just those in their party–we would get more moderate legislators and less polarization in Sacramento. Here’s some of the argument from the 2010 Primary Election Voter Guide:

Our economy is in crisis. …

Our state government is broken.

But the politicians would rather stick to their rigid partisan positions and appease the special interests than work together to solve California’s problems.

In order to change government we need to change the kind of people we send to the Capitol to represent us.

IT’S TIME TO END THE BICKERING AND GRIDLOCK AND FIX THE SYSTEM

The politicians won’t do it, but Proposition 14 will. …

“The best part of the open primary is that it would lessen the influence of the major parties, which are now under control of the special interests.” (Fresno Bee, 2/22/09.)

PARTISANSHIP IS RUNNING OUR STATE INTO THE GROUND

Non-partisan measures like Proposition 14 will push our elected officials to begin working together for the common good. …

Vote Yes on 14—for elected representatives who are LESS PARTISAN and MORE PRACTICAL.

What’s not to like there? The promise is that we’ll get less partisan representatives who can work together for the benefit of the state as a whole rather than the parties and interests that worked to get them elected.

So how’s that working out? It’s actually pretty hard to say. Things seem to be running smoother in Sacramento, but is that because (a) we have unified Democratic control of the state government, (b) Democrats control almost 2/3 of the state legislature, (c) the economy has been improving, (d) changes made to legislative districts by the Citizen’s Redistricting Commission, (e) reforms to the budgeting process enacted by Prop. 25, (f) changes to term limits made by Prop. 28, (g) something else, or (h) all of the above? Honestly, given so many moving pieces, it’s hard to say for sure what has led to the renaissance (such as it is) in California government.

But, new data is becoming available that can help us assess parts of the claims made by top two supporters. For example, has the top two system of elections led to less polarization in the legislature? Are legislators more likely to work together in a non-partisan fashion now that we have the top two system?

To help answer this question I will turn to the Shor-McCarty NPAT scores. These scores map legislators in each of the states on a common liberal-conservative spectrum. In July, Shor and McCarty released an update that includes data for 2013 so that we can see how the legislature is behaving in the year after our first top two election. The following graph plots the distance between the median Republican and the median Democrat in both chambers of the state legislature between 1993 and 2013. Higher scores mean greater distance between the two party medians and therefore more polarization.

CA_Polarization

So, um, yeah … not so much with the “less partisan” and “more practical” legislators. The trend in greater polarization that began in 1995 seems to have continued unabated in 2013. Both the California Assembly and the State Senate were more polarized in 2013 than they were at any other time given this data. A system that was supposed to break the party-dominated tone of life in Sacramento hasn’t done so. Indeed, the polarization trend has held through three different primary (closed, blanket, and semi-closed) systems in addition to the top two system.

But wait, you are saying, this is the first year we have used the top two system. Give it some time, you say. Maybe things will change in a couple years. Possibly. Possibly.

As it happens, California isn’t the first state to adopt the top two system. Immediately before we adopted it, Washington adopted the top two system. The following graph presents the same data for Washington. What has happened to polarization there? Nothing of note. Well, we can say one thing of note: Again, contrary to the promises of the pro-top two reformers, polarization didn’t go down after Washington adopted the top two system.

WA_Polarization

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