Wednesday, April 30, 2008

North Carolina First Glimpse

For most of this campaign season, when focusing on rural voters, commentary has equated “rural” with “white.” In many southern states, however, there is a sizable African-American rural population. I’ve touched briefly on this in my Mississippi posts and want to return to it now with North Carolina. Whereas I talked about the Mississippi 2nd District as being largely African American and rural, North Carolina’s 1st is even more so. The largest city, Goldsboro, has just over 36,000 people. The counties that make up the district are all relatively small population wise.

North Carolina 1 is tobacco country, pure and simple. There are more tobacco farmers in this district than any other in the country. "CQ’s Politics in America" describes the district:

“The area’s economy is based overwhelmingly on manufacturing and agriculture. Cotton and peanut fields prevail in the northern counties, while tobacco, hogs and poultry dominate further south. Manufacturing, primarily in textile and lumber products, is scattered throughout.”

Demographically, the district is 50% African American and has the lowest median income and education levels in the state. If you look at the cluster of counties that make up the district, those counties with the highest percentage of African Americans make up the north and central section (Northampton, Hertford, Edgecombe, and Bertie). It has been a Democratic stronghold for generations, although white Democrats supported George Wallace in 1968 and Richard Nixon in 1972. In 2004, the 1st was the second most Democratic in the state, giving Kerry 57%.

Looking toward Tuesday, I wonder if we’ll see the same type of racialized voting that has been prevalent up to this point. While Obama should win the district, it will be interesting to see his margins and level of support among white voters.

In Congress, the district is represented by Congressman G.K. Butterfield (D), whose personal back story is reflective of the complicated, yet fascinating, racial history of the area. Again, "CQ’s Politics in America":

“His great-grandfather was a white slave owner who conceived a child with one of his slaves. The child, Butterfield’s grandfather, was born in the final days of slavery and became a minister.”

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A First Look At Indiana--Does Pennsylvania Teach Us Anything??

With a week to go before the double bill in North Carolina and Indiana, I thought I’d take a first look at the Hoosier state and size up Obama’s chances. Most of the recent polls I’ve seen up to this point show him trailing Senator Clinton, with varying margins. Assuming that the results in Pennsylvania will have some bearing on the Indiana vote (press coverage, Clinton momentum, etc.), I thought I’d use last week’s vote as a way to speculate on Indiana.

In the Pennsylvania primary, Obama won 7 counties (Centre, Chester, Dauphin, Delaware, Lancaster, Philadelphia, and Union) on the way to capturing 46% of the statewide total. What we seem to be seeing as these contests progress is a dynamic where Obama’s vote tends to be concentrated in urban areas and inner ring suburbs, plus more outlying counties that have an academic/university/research presence that brings with it young voters and highly educated/high income professionals. Basically what we’re finding is that Obama does better in areas with more African American voters, higher median incomes, higher education levels, and fewer seniors. Using these basic points of comparison, we see that Obama is perhaps at a disadvantage in Indiana, relative to Pennsylvania (data available here):

Indiana Vs. Pennsylvania:
African American %: 8.7 vs. 10.4
Median Income: $45,394 vs. $46,259
% w/College Degree: 21.7 vs. 25.4
% 65 Years & Over: 12.4 vs. 15.1

Only on the age variable, does he fare more favorably than he did in Pennsylvania.

Running the numbers on the counties Obama won in Pennsylvania, I found that these counties provided 32% of the total votes cast statewide. Philadelphia, with 19% of the statewide vote, made up the bulk of this. Looking at Indiana, I’ve tried to identify counties that might be favorable to Obama. I would identify first Marion County (Indianapolis). Marion County is 24% African American which should bode well for Obama. Next is Lake County (Gary, Hammond). Lake County, part of the Chicago metropolitan area, is 25% African American. Third is St. Joseph County (home to Notre Dame). This county is 12% African American plus has a sizable student/university population. Fourth is Monroe County, centered around Bloomington and Indiana University. Monroe is only 3% African American but, as noted, has a large student/university population. Finally, La Porte County is 10% African American. In the 2004 election, all of these counties gave Kerry a victory with the exception of St. Joseph which narrowly went to Bush.

Can we use this county level data, plus the Pennsylvania results, to make some projections? Because we don’t have a recent Indiana primary to use as a baseline for predicting turnout, I decided to look at the 2004 general. Using 2004, we see that the counties I’ve identified as most favorable to Obama provided 29% of the statewide turnout. Comparing this to Pennsylvania, we see Obama perhaps in a worse position. The more rural counties provide a greater share of the vote in Indiana than they did in Pennsylvania. So, making the assumption that Obama wins those counties I identified, he might end up further behind than he did in Pennsylvania (this also assumes Pennsylvania like margins in the remaining counties). This also assumes he wins with comparable percentages. It is perhaps a stretch to think that he’ll match or exceed the 65% of the Philly vote he got in Indianapolis. Whereas Philadelphia is roughly 45% African American, Indianapolis is only one-quarter black.

So, based strictly on this cursory demographic examination, things don’t look so good in Indiana for Obama. How might he fare better? One variable working in his favor, as several commentators have noted, is the “Midwest” factor. Whereas Obama has had a problem in more “Appalachian” regions (see here), Indiana’s geography and ethnic patterns are a bit different. Furthermore, bordering his home state of Illinois, there will be a greater level of familiarity with him, especially in the northwestern corner of the state (Lake, La Porte, St. Joseph Counties). A second variable is the fact that Indiana, unlike Pennsylvania, is an open primary. Obama has consistently outperformed Clinton among independent and Republican leaning voters who have participated in Democratic contests this year. So, to the degree that Obama is able to close the gap with Clinton in Indiana, it would seem that it's these voters that he’ll have to rely on.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Suburban Diversity

Noam Sheiber at the New Republic has some interesting analysis of the voting in the Philadelphia suburbs. He suggests that we should perhaps view suburbs--and their corresponding partisanship--along a continuum. Noting that Obama did better in the more Republican leaning suburban counties, this brings us back to the "electability" debate and the role of independents. Today, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe argued that Obama's appeal to these swing voters makes him the better candidate for the fall. Data from rural central Pennsylvania points to gains for Obama, relative to Ohio, in heavily Republican areas as well. Though not suburban, these voters seem willing to give Obama close consideration.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


We're now starting to get some ward level results for Philadelphia. Since the exit polling started coming out, the correlation between race and support for Obama/Clinton has intensified. I'm not the first one to present the contrast shown above, but I thought I'd put my two cents in. If you look at the city of Philadelphia, broken down by race, you see a pretty solid linkage between race and vote choice. This is a dynamic similar to what we saw in Ohio seven weeks ago and its a trend that's gotten Obama supporters extremely nervous. Further complicating this is the fact that the upscale suburbs that I thought would do well for Obama were much more evenly split.

So how do we explain this?? There seem to be a couple of explanations--perhaps in combination--that can give us some answers. The first explanation would be that, yes, white working class voters won't vote for a black candidate. The "Pennsyltucky" or Appalachian phenomenon is used to bolster this argument. As I've been mulling this data and these maps, my mind keeps going back to the state I'm most familiar with and would seem to act as a counterfactual--Wisconsin. While not Appalachian, Wisconsin is certainly filled with white ethnics and working class voters. Yet it went overwhelmingly to Obama. Not only did he win where one thought he would--Milwaukee and Madison--but he won by large margins statewide.

Now either Wisconsin is an outlier or we need to look for other explanations. Two come immediately to mind. The first is political. In both Pennsylvania and Ohio Senator Clinton had powerful and popular governors--and their respective machines and GOTV operations--on her side. John and I have already speculated that this might explain Clinton's success in the Philly suburbs. In Wisconsin, Governor Jim Doyle is an Obama supporter. The second explanation brings race back in but speaks more to the calendar of the Democratic race. Wisconsin voted before the Reverend Wright controversy erupted. Thus, Badger state voters were looking at an Obama who hadn't had much of his shine rubbed off. Wisconsin voted after Obama had run off an impressive streak of consecutive wins in Virginia, Maryland, Washington, and elsewhere. In other words, momentum was on his side and states were voting in a compacted schedule, thus minimizing the chance that any attack on Obama could metastasize. By the time Ohio, and especially Pennsylvania came around, he had not only been subject to much greater scrutiny but would have to spend weeks on these issues as they dogged his campaign. Thus, white voters may be perfectly willing to vote for a black candidate as long as they haven't been thinking about race beforehand. When that issue becomes activated, Obama fares worse.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Levittown Wipeout

We're starting to get some detailed numbers in, although Philadelphia city breakdowns remain elusive. A few posts ago I pointed to Bucks County as a possible area of strength for Obama. Looking at the results we see how poorly he did there, despite some demographics I thought could work in his favor. The final Bucks County totals show a 63-37% Clinton win.

One part of the county we might focus on to view as a microcosm of Obama's suburban underperformance is Levittown. Built after its New York counterpart, the planned suburban community offered an oasis to post-war city dwellers seeking greener pastures. These originals settlers were heavily Catholic and Jewish. The racial breakdown of Levittown is currently 94% white with the remainder evenly divided between African Americans and Latinos. While suburban, it is more middle than high income.

Levittown is not incorporated as its own township but is instead made up of Bristol Township, Falls Township, Middletown Township, and Tullytown. Combining the vote totals for these four townships, I was able to get the vote totals for Clinton and Obama. What we see is that not only did Clinton get a higher percentage than her statewide showing, but Levittown gave her a higher percentage than her overall total in Bucks County. The final margin was 67-33%.

So, as we start to look for reasons why Obama was unable to hold Clinton to single digits, its places like Levittown that may give us some answers. While we thought the Philly suburban ring might be the key to an Obama surprise, it seems now that despite what we saw in some earlier states, we were perhaps being too optimistic.
***Update: A reader pointed me to this long article on Levittown from a recent New York Times Magazine.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Penn Primary Nite LIVE Blogging

It looks like Obama's strategy to rack up big margins in the affluent Philly suburban counties has been stymied.

10:09 PM:
With 19% reporting. Hillary Clinton is winning Northampton County, home to Lehigh University but also Bethlehem Steel, whose union workers have come out for her. JVLaB

10:24 PM:
As John and I sit here trying to get good numbers, I'm focusing on Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs. In a few of my past posts, I've pointed to Montgomery and Bucks counties as potential boons to Obama's chances--at least in the sense that they could allow him to blunt Clinton's numbers elsewhere across the state. It seems, at least now, as if Obama has underperformed here, especially in Montgomery.

I'm also interested in getting, probably tomorrow, some detailed numbers from the city of Philadelphia. When I do, I'm going to look back at some previous presidential races in Philly and see if we can see some parallels, neighborhood by neighborhood. If you've read my posts going back to the beginning of, 1968 will be the first place I look. CBMurray

10:34 PM:
Looks like Northampton County's precincts might be starkly split, between university-heavy Obama wins and union-heavy Bethlehem and Allentown. JVLaB

10:40 PM:
McCain is only mustering about 72% against a dormant Huckabee campaign and a meandering Ron Paul. Interesting note: McCain is bringing in that number statewide. No "Pennsyltucky" effect boosting Huckabee's numbers there. JVLaB

10:46 PM:
This story in today's Washington Post gives a nice portrait of a changing Reading, Pennsylvania. Now half Latino, the city finds itself in the midst of transition from what it once was--blue collar, white ethnic--into a place not quite yet defined. As of now, Berks County has gone heavily to Clinton, 58%-42%. CBMurray

10:52 PM:
Clinton clobbering Obama in what many expected to be Obama-favorable Bucks County by a 2 to 1 margin, and in Montgomery County, Clinton is winning by her statwide margin, 54-46%. JVLaB

11:06 PM:
Exit Polls. Obama does better among men. However, the cleavages of age and race remain stark. Also of interest is education. Despite Obama's earlier advantages among the most highly educated, he split with Clinton among those with college and post-graduate degrees. Income also seems to be a bit more murky with Obama doing best among the highest bracket but Clinton doing very well in the 100-150K range. CBMurray

11:14 PM:
Talk about your “bitter” voters! In Centralia, the fabled ghost town where a mere 21 residents still live above a coal mine fire that’s been smoldering for 40 years, Clinton beats Obama by 4 to 1 – votes that is. JVLaB

11:49 PM:
Obama wins Dauphin County, whose seat is heavily Afro-Am Harrisburg, the “Keystone Kapital.” Obama runs away there, but stays competitive in the largely white surrounding townships, especially in more prosperous localities like Swatara, Susquehanna, Lower Paxton and Derry. JVLaB

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Pennsylvania Paradox

Building upon Prof. CBMurray’s post, Philly’s bellwether suburban Montgomery County sits at the heart of this year’s Pennsylvania Paradox, where the Democratic presidential primary finds Keystone political players and their traditional constituencies all mixed up. Lining up behind Hillary Clinton is Gov. Ed Rendell, the Upper West Side-born socially liberal Jewish former Philly mayor with a history of battling public employee unions. Barack Obama’s most prominent surrogate is Sen. Robert Casey, Jr., the pro-gun, pro-life Catholic Democrat; a union stalwart and a scion of Scranton.

Rendell lost the 1986 Democratic gubernatorial primary to Casey’s father, the late Robert Casey, Sr., but defeated Casey, Jr. for the same nod in 2002. ( would be remiss if we failed to note that a Clinton-Casey clan rivalry dates back to 1992 when nominee Bill Clinton refused a Democratic convention speaking slot to Casey, Sr. to air his anti-abortion views, despite a long history of both families sharing the services of consultants Paul Begala and James Carville.) Rendell won that contest by racking up huge majorities in the affluent, socially liberal suburban counties that ring his Philly base. Rendell beat Casey, Jr. by 13 points, but won only 11 of the Keystone State’s 67 counties.

Casey, Jr. even mustered over 20% in the city of Philadelphia, where pro-union, pro-life urban ethnic Catholic Democrats are not yet extinct. But in Montgomery County, home of the tony “Main Line” towns that were once the heart of WASPy liberal Republicans, Rendell trounced Casey, Jr. 88%-12%, and racked up margins nearly as lopsided in surrounding Bucks, Delaware and Chester counties.

Despite Rendell’s indefatigable barnstorming for HRC this year, given Obama’s strength among college educated, affluent social liberals this primary season, the post-primary map is likely to resemble that 2002 Rendell-Casey, Jr. map, but with Casey-endorsed Obama winning Rendell territory and HRC romping away in Casey Country: Pittsburgh, Coal Country and Appalachian “Pennsyltucky,” her traditional down-scale, union-heavy base this cycle.

2002 Pennsylvania County Map of Democratic Primary Election Results for Governor

Montgomery County leads these trends. In fact, Montgomery was the only county that Casey père couldn’t carry in his landslide 1990 reelection. The Main Line forsook the pro-life Democrat of working class roots for Barbara Hafer, the liberal Republican state auditor and a vociferous advocate of abortion rights. (Despite hailing from suburban Pittsburgh, Hafer’s career reflects Montgomery’s political evolution: she switched parties in 2003 and her daughter is vying for the Dem nod to challenge freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy (PA18).

County Map

And after voting for him in ’94 and 2000 (against pro-life Pittsburgh-area fmr. U.S. Rep. Ron Klink), Montgomery County lost patience with trade-bashing, gay-baiting Sen. Rick Santorum, favoring none other than Bob Casey, Jr. against him, 62-38%, surpassing Casey’s statewide margin.

This evolving partisanship is marked by stunning shifts in party registration totals, which might give Obama a fighting chance to pull off an upset. advisor Bill Boyle pointed us to this graphic, illustrating the steep drop-off in those suburban Philly counties in Republican and independent registrations coupled by even sharper gains for Democrats. A reporter friend who spent time on the ground in Pennsylvania’s hotly contested 2004 Republican Senate primary recounted how, to narrowly fend off a challenge for renomination from then-U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, Sen. Arlen Specter scrambled to re-register Philly ‘burb voters who had switched parties to vote for Rendell in ’02, suggesting that the graphic might be even more dramatic had Specter not needed to undertake that effort.

Hillary’s saving grace may be Montgomery’s heavily Jewish precincts, which have turned out historically for both Republicans (Specter, fmr. U.S. Rep. Jon Fox) and Democrats (U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, fmr. U.S. Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky) with ties to the Jewish community. The test will be whether Jewish voters who favored Hillary Clinton in Florida (note her margins in CDs 19, 20 & 22), New York (see Riverdale’s Assembly District 81) and Maryland (see precincts in Pikesville, B’more Co.) will do so in enough numbers here to tamp down Obama’s expected margin of victory, neutralizing Obama’s Rendell 2002-inspired strategy.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Keystone State Tour--Stop 4

Just north of Montgomery County is our next destination, Bucks County. Politically, Bucks and Montgomery have had a very similar recent history and trajectory. While traditionally Republican in orientation, the county has become not only competitive but has begun siding with Democratic candidates at the national and statewide level in recent cycles. Kerry won Bucks County in 2004 with just over 51% of the vote. Gore got just less, 50.5%, in 2000. Bucks was part of Governor Ed Rendell’s southeastern Pennsylvania sweep, garnering 70% here.

At the congressional level, Bucks county is essentially all of the 8th district. For the past few House elections, the 8th has been decided on a razor’s edge and it has alternated between Democratic and Republican control. The last iteration was a flip to the Democratic side in 2006 with Patrick Murphy’s defeat of Michael Fitzpatrick with just over 50%. Fitzpatrick had served just one term after taking over for Republican Rep. James Greenwood who had held the seat with relatively substantial margins since 1992. Prior to Greenwood, the district was held by Democrat Peter Kostmayer.

Demographically, Bucks County is a bit different from its southern neighbor, Montgomery. Most observers have bisected the county into “upper Bucks” and “lower Bucks.” Drawing on an old “Almanac of American Politics,” the authors write:

“Bucks County is one of those place names that have entered our literary imagination. The northwestern or upper part of the county is rolling farmland, easily reached by train from New York and Philadelphia. It has long been the residence of well-known writers and artists, who live in stone Quaker farmhouses near such villages as New Hope and Lumberville. These neighbors are sometimes Pennsylvania Dutch farmers or, more often, comfortably-off people with jobs somewhere closer-in in the Philadelphia area. But this is not the whole story of Bucks County; Upper Bucks has only about half the district’s population. Lower Bucks County is an entirely different place—predominantly industrial and blue collar.”

The county was the home to the second Levittown built in the U.S. and this part of the county acted as a repository for blue collar migrants leaving Philadelphia proper in the 50’s and 60’s. It is this rural/blue collar divide that made the district so competitive for so long. While much of the industrial base, including U.S. Steel, has seen drastic cutbacks in recent years, Democratic fortunes have been helped by the leftward drift of much of the traditional Republican voting base. Unlike Montgomery county, there is not a large university presence in the county.

Both Obama and Clinton have made numerous visits to the county. If endorsements matter, Obama is positioned well. He has the support of Congressman Murphy and recently received the nod by the Bucks County Courier Times. Like with Montgomery, though, this is Governor Rendell’s backyard and he has been working tirelessly for Clinton. Working against Obama in the county is its small African American population, only 4%. On the plus side for Obama is the economic profile. We’ve seen a correlation between county wealth and support for Obama (see earlier post). Bucks County is the state’s third wealthiest in terms of per capita and median household income and has a low unemployment rate compared to the state average. For Obama to be close or win, he's going to have to run up large margins in these suburbs to offset losses in the rural parts of the state.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Do Contentious Nominations Put Parties in Trouble or Do Parties in Trouble Have Contentious Nominations???

As the debate continues about the state of the Obama/Clinton contest and how it will affect the Democratic nominee’s chances in November, I thought it might be helpful to take a bit of a historical look at this issue. With all sorts of pundits, journalists, and Democratic activists in a tizzy over this question, taking a step back is clearly in order.

As I mentioned in my post on realignment, Walter Dean Burnham identified a process, rapidly unfolding by the 1960’s, of party “decomposition.” What he meant by this was that the party, as organization, was able to exert less and less control over the process by which party nominees were chosen. With the advent of the primary system the nomination process, while “democratized,” was also more subject to unpredictable and uncontrollable twists and turns. Candidates themselves became increasingly in control of the process and decisions about when to enter and when to exit the race were largely theirs to make. We see the manifestation of this today in the Democratic race.

This got me thinking about those nomination fights, for both parties, that have been the most contentious in the years since Burnham identified this process. Did these contentious nomination processes doom the nominee in the fall? Might there be other explanations for that party’s failure to capture the presidency?

While all nomination fights have some degree of conflict—indeed that’s what a nomination process is premised on—some have been more contentious and drawn out than others. I’ve identified four that seem to be the most cited as damaging to their party:

1968 Democrats. Here we have the classic example of a party in chaos and disarray. After President Johnson is embarrassed in the New Hampshire primary by Senator Eugene McCarthy, LBJ decides not to seek re-election. We see McCarthy continue, soon joined by Bobby Kennedy and the incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey. After the assassination of RFK, the party limps to the disastrous Chicago convention and awards the nomination to Humphrey.

1976 Republicans. President Ford, never elected Vice President or President due to the resignations of both Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon, is seeking election in his own right. In the process he is challenged from the right by former California Governor Ronald Reagan. Reagan wins some primaries but drops out at the party convention in Kansas City.

1980 Democrats. President Jimmy Carter, in the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis, is challenged by Senator Edward Kennedy. Carter, despite capturing the White House for the Democrats in the wake of Watergate, is unpopular nationwide and within the Democratic Congress. Sensing the last chance at restoring Camelot, Kennedy jumps in the race and manages to win some contests but doesn’t come close to winning the nomination. Nonetheless, he doesn’t formally drop out until the convention in New York.

1992 Republicans. This case was probably the least contentious but still produced some surprises. Coming out of the Gulf War, George Bush’s popularity skyrockets, forcing many prominent Democrats to opt out of challenging him. As the economy begins to sour, commentator and former Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan mounts a populist challenge to Bush for the Republican nomination. While the outcome of the nomination was never really in doubt, Buchanan’s challenge did signal difficulties ahead, both at the disastrous convention in New Orleans, and afterwards.

So what can we say about these cases? The first thing that we would note is that in all four cases the nominee eventually lost the general election in November. The 1968 and 1976 general elections were extremely close, 1980 and 1992 less so. Thus, a fractious nominating process would seem to bring bad tidings on a party.

But wait. Might we have the arrow of causality backwards? Rather than a party being weakened by a tough nomination fight, might that fight be the consequence of an already weakened party? Here, there seems to be compelling evidence.

One thing we would note about these contentious fights is that in all four cases it was the party in power that went through the wrenching nomination. As presidents’ terms progress, we tend to see a decline in their popularity, the fracturing of their original electoral coalition, and their tendency to be captured by events. With Humphrey in ’68, his inability to disassociate himself with LBJ’s Vietnam policy was an albatross he couldn’t shake. Ford in ’76 found himself bearing the brunt of voters’ Watergate rage, surely compounded by his pardon of Nixon. Carter in 1980, as mentioned, had the Iran hostage crisis, plus the general “malaise” of inflation to grapple with. Finally, Bush in ’92 had declining economic fortunes on his watch. Thus, while we normally think of incumbents as having tremendous advantages, a faltering presidency can be deadly, whether the incumbent is on the ticket in November or not.

A second thing to note about these election years is that in three of them—’68, ’80, and ’92 you had a credible third party candidate enter the race and perform well in November. George Wallace captured 13% of the vote, and five states, in 1968. Republican House member, turned independent candidate, John Anderson received 7% of the vote in 1980. Ross Perot in 1992 got 19%. Furthermore, in looking at the origins of these candidacies and the source of their support, we can see them essentially as spin-offs or breakaways from one of the major parties. Wallace had been elected as a Democrat, had sought the Democratic nomination before and would seek it again in the future. Anderson, as mentioned, was a Republican House member and seemed to tap into the liberal wing of the Republican electorate scared off by Reagan’s conservatism. Some of these voters may have flocked to Carter (although they wouldn't have been enough to save Carter's presidency). Finally, while never a Republican office holder, an examination of the Perot vote suggests he took more from the normal Republican electorate than from the Democratic side.

So, rather than dooming a party to failure, might a contentious nomination fight be a symptom of a much larger problem?

Looking at this year, then, what can we say? The first thing I would say is that it’s not at all clear that the Obama/Clinton contest has reached to level of rancor that these other races did. We’ll have to see how the next few months play out. Second, one thing working in the Democratic nominee’s favor, whoever it is, is that they are the party out of power right now. It is John McCain who will be occupying the role of Hubert Humphrey, to use the Vietnam/Iraq parallel as an example. Neither Obama nor Clinton has to defend the current administration. There will inevitably be a rallying behind the Democratic nominee—it’s easier, perhaps, to storm the castle than defend it. Finally, we don’t have a credible third party candidate this year to siphon off votes from the left. That will work to the Democratic nominee’s advantage. If we look at the fundamentals—Bush’s approval rating, perception of the economy, opinion of the war in Iraq, Democrats’ performance in the ’06 midterms, etc.—things seem to look good for the Dems.

So for those worrying about whether Clinton voters will support Obama or whether Obama voters will support Clinton, you need to settle down.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Keystone State Tour--Stop 3

Our next stop on the Pennsylvania tour is Montgomery county. For those familiar with the Philadelphia area, this is the “main line” communities that extend westward from the city. Once the retreat of old money industrialists and financiers, Montgomery county has become much more politically competitive. A large county with over 750,000 residents, there are a lot of votes to be had. Thus, a concentrated effort can reap big rewards. While it used to be solid Republican country, and still elects a large number of Republicans, Montgomery county gave John Kerry 56% in 2004. To give you a sense of this change both Gore and Clinton won the county (54%, 49%, 43%) following several cycles of Republican dominance (Bush ’88-60%; Reagan ’84—64%; Reagan ’80—58%; Ford ’76—57%).

Due to some pretty dramatic gerrymandering, the county is shared by a number of congressional districts, but the two major officeholders are congressmen Joe Sestak (D) and Jim Gerlach (R). An indication of the area’s changing politics, Sestak unseated longtime Republican incumbent Curt Weldon in 2006. Although certainly helped by Weldon’s ethical indiscretions, Sestak victory highlights how competitive the area has become. This tightness is further evidenced by Gerlach’s close encounters over the past few election cycles. In his past three races, Gerlach has received 51%, 51%, and 50.7% respectively, and has managed to survive as a result of his long service to the district (12 years in the state legislature) and moderate voting record.

Looking to next week’s primary, one would think that if Obama is going to keep the race close he’s going to need to do very well here. The county fits very much into the profile of areas he’s been doing well in. It’s more upscale and has a large university population with schools like Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Vilanova all in the area.

However, Clinton backer and consummate Pennsylvania pol Governor Ed Rendell is strong in the area. He received 72% in the county in 2006 and you can bet he’s not going to let Obama have an easy win in his back yard. Congressman Sestak has also endorsed Clinton. Watch this county closely next week.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Is Realignment Coming? Some Thoughts on Critical Elections and the State of Modern Parties

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted so I want to get a number of ideas flowing over the next few days. As a result, this post is going to be a bit of a stream of consciousness. After doing a number of posts on V.O. Key, I’ve started to revisit a number of “classic” studies of voting behavior to see of there are any parallels we can draw to the current contest. Next on the bibliography is Walter Dean Burnham’sCritical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics,” published in 1970.

Burnham’s work is seminal in that it brought forward the theory of “realignment,” namely the notion that American political history has been characterized by long periods of stable voting behavior and party coalitions, punctuated by rapid periods of upheaval, leading to the emergence of reordered coalitions and a new political order.

A couple of aspects of the current campaign got me thinking about Burnham and led me to dust off his book. First, as I wrote a few weeks ago, the speculation about Obama’s ability to “redraw” the political map hints at the potential for a modern realignment. With the Obama campaign producing increased political participation and drawing new groups to the Democratic side (at least for now), two preconditions of a “realignment” are present. Obviously it’s difficult (and dangerous) to use primary voting to predict dramatic systemic change so I don’t want to do much more than raise some ideas and questions. If you listen to much of Obama’s message on the stump—including the current brouhaha about voters being “bitter”—he is describing a state of voter unease that Burnham identifies as preceding these critical elections. Realignments “arise from emergent tensions in society which, not adequately controlled by the organization of outputs of party politics as usual, escalate to a flash point…They are involved with redefinitions of the universe of voters, political parties, and the broad boundaries of the politically possible” (p. 10). So, when Obama talks about “change,” he seems to be calling for realignment. Burnham also argues that following realignments we tend to see more dramatic policy change, another part of Obama’s message.

This has led me to think a lot about the importance of candidates themselves in this process. Does it matter who is running for office at the time of realignment? Does the right candidate make realignment more likely? Do politicians matter? Here, Burnham is less clear. He, like Kevin Phillips, and more modern writers like Judis and Texeira, focuses much of his analysis on historical, demographic, and socio-economic changes over the long term. Or put more crudely, political change follows societal change. As old political orders can no longer contain societal forces in flux, new orders erupt. Politicians seem secondary in this analysis. However, when we look at periods of realignment, we see presidents emerge that are by no means ordinary—Lincoln and Roosevelt, for example. While Burnham’s work was released before the Reagan ascendancy, many have pointed to his rise as the most recent realignment. Many of Obama’s supporters, though perhaps overly enthusiastic, see him as the next great charismatic leader who can reorder American politics. The question that I’ve been pondering is, if the conditions are right for a realignment, could a candidate like Clinton, Edwards, Richardson, or any of the other Democrats who sought the nomination produce the same magnitude of change that others are looking to Obama to create?? Again, Obama’s message suggests the answer is no. He wants us to believe that, yes, who is running matters.

Finally, Burnham’s book has gotten me thinking a lot about parties themselves. During the long periods of stability and the short periods of flux, parties are crucial actors. They serve to aggregate voter demands and structure political conflict. As the supporting coalitions shift, parties may disappear (the Whigs) or undergo substantial change. In earlier party systems, Burnham describes very strong party organizations with control over ballot distribution, candidate nomination, and even the distribution of political information through their own media. Beginning with the Progressive movement in the early 20th century, these party organizations were weakened dramatically. As voters became responsible for their own registration, primaries became the means for awarding candidates’ nominations, and as more voters became willing to identify themselves as independents, party “decomposition” began to accelerate.

As I read this I couldn’t help but think about the current state of the party nomination process we’re now going through, especially for the Democrats. We’re now at a point where, for example, the DNC has $5 million in the bank as opposed to Obama’s $40 million. Or, look at the debate about the Florida and Michigan delegations. We’ve spent the better part of two months engaging in a debate about whether rules established by the party (and agreed to by the candidates and states in question) can be changed simply because the campaign has played out differently than one of the candidates intended. Finally, we have Obama supporters suggesting that Clinton should spare the party more months of bloodshed by gracefully dropping out in the face of unassailable delegate math. The common thread that runs through all three of these is the weakness of modern political party organizations. Even though we have a party organization, it seems to lack any authority to shape the process and exert leverage over the candidates. In reality, it seems as if the party organization, as many have historically understood it, simply doesn’t exist anymore. All authority has been usurped by the candidates themselves. For Democrats hoping to win in November, their fear seems to be that the “decomposition” of the party has become complete. So complete, in fact, that it could kill their chances.

**Listen to Burnham discuss his work, in 2006, here.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Is This Any Way to Choose Judges???

Appropos of nothing John and I have been writing about recently, but kind of interesting nonetheless, Wisconsin had a state Supreme Court election yesterday that proved somewhat fascinating. Like most states, Wisconsin elects its justices. As this article discusses, this process has raised numerous questions about how these campaigns are financed and what role outside interests--who potentially have business before the court--play in these races. As campaigns become increasingly expensive, judicial candidates have greater pressure to adopt more traditional campaign tactics to secure their seats. Something to ponder is whether there should be this growing equivalence between judicial and legislative/executive campaigns. Should the job description merit a different mode of selection?

Of specific interest in this race is that for only the fourth time in Wisconsin history, since justices began being elected in 1852, a sitting incumbent justice was defeated for re-election. While we normally think about the security of congressional incumbents in gaining re-election, judicial re-election rates tend to be very high as well. Given that turnout in this election was very small, I'm not sure there's anything we can extrapolate from the results. Nonetheless, its fun to look at other types of elections going on and see whether there's a broader meaning to be gleaned.