Thursday, December 03, 2009

Redistricting Louisiana--When Every Variable Collides

This study by the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna brings together everything that gets me excited about elections and political demography (great maps too). When Louisiana begins its redistricting process after next year's census, its going to have its work cut out for it. As a result of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent out-migration of thousands of Louisianans, the state's population has actually declined. That's a sure fire way to ensure that the state is going to lose one House seat. Thus, its delegation is poised to fall from 7 to 6 members. The process of reshuffling districts in order to remove one is almost always messy.

There are some other variables at play here as well. The state government is currently divided between a Republican Governor (Bobby Jindal) and House (with a narrow GOP majority) and a Democratic Senate. Thus, assuming this division remains, partisan wrangling will run through all of the mapping and deliberations. The current delegation is 6 Republicans to only 1 Democrat. Obviously both parties want to grow the size of their delegation. What either party is able to propose is somewhat limited by another consideration. As a result of the Voting Rights Act, the 2nd District which encompasses New Orleans will likely have to be kept majority-black. I profiled the interesting turn this district took in last year's election. Currently represented by Republican Joseph Cao, this district is likely to swing back to the Democrats next year. The requirement to maintain its racial balance limits the ability of the state to shift its black population into neighboring districts or to move outlying white constituents in.

The district that appears to be most in jeopardy is the 3rd, encompassing the southeastern part of the state. Currently held by Blue Dog Democrat Charlie Melancon, the willingness of state legislators to carve this district up and disperse its constituents to surrounding districts is buttressed by the fact that Melancon is vacating the seat next year to challenge GOP Senator David Vitter. As the study notes, it may be easier to force out Melancon's freshman successor than any of the more senior members of the delegation. If someone needs to lose out, better it be a freshman than someone with more political clout.

The part of the state that seems to be ground zero in both parties' attempts to maximize their electoral chances is the greater Baton Rouge area (also profiled last year). The 6th district has been the most competitive in recent cycles and contains the largest African American population outside of New Orleans. Thus, moving enough whites out into surrounding districts or adding enough African Americans (probably from the 2nd assuming one could do so and still abide by the Voting Rights Act) would seem to be on the Democrats' agenda. Moving more whites in, probably from the 3rd, would help the GOP's chances.

Overlaying all of this is a general statewide trend toward Republicans. John McCain carried the state by 19 points in 2008, an improvement on Bush's 53% and 57% totals in 2000 and 2004 respectively. However, Democrats are able to be competitive in statewide offices. Senator Mary Landrieu is currently in her third Senate term. With an African American population of roughly 33% (with that population being very well dispersed as well), Democrats have a sizable base of support from which to build upon.

Thus, we've got the intersection of dramatic population shifts, partisanship, race, and the interests of individual politicians and their careers--all within a process that must produce a final outcome. Louisiana has always had one of the most colorful politics in the country. 2011 should live up to the state's reputation.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Voting for Mayor in the "City Too Busy To Hate"

Some interesting results from yesterday's mayoral runoff in Atlanta. The race pitted Kasim Reed, the Democratic candidate and a former state senator against independent City Councilwoman Mary Norwood. The result--a tentative 620 vote win by Reed--has triggered calls for a recount, something Norwood is entitled to by law and which Reed has pledged to adhere to. What's interesting about this election is not so much the results, but what they might say about the role race plays in voting. I've spent a lot of time on this site talking about the racial dimension of American voting behavior, much too much to recount ad nauseum here. Suffice it to say, its an issue, especially in many southern states. The results in Atlanta, however, go against the conventional wisdom that whites won't vote for blacks and blacks won't vote for whites (especially when running against a black opponent). Reed is black; Norwood is white.

Lets look at some numbers. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reports the results by city council district (and also precinct) here and also provides an excellent interactive map of the city. Their data also includes each district's white and black population %. From this I created the following chart:

What we see is that the voting does not show a consistent correlation between the racial makeup of the electorate and its vote. If we were to hypothesize an electorate perfectly polarized by race, we'd expect each candidate's performance to essentially match the racial composition of each district. That is far from what happened. In the three whitest districts (6, 7, and 8) Reed did better than we might expect. Likewise, in the four blackest districts (4, 10, 11, and 12) Norwood also outperformed expectations based solely on race. These numbers are even more interesting when we throw the variable of party into the mix. We would assume that those whitest parts of Atlanta, located in the northern part of the city, would be the most Republican. That he still reasonably well here is quite fascinating. Likewise, although Norwood campaigned as an Independent, she has more often than not voted as a Republican in past elections. That she could perform so well in heavily black areas further suggests that there were some interesting dynamics at play.

When the Civil Rights Movement threw much of the south into turmoil, there was a saying that Atlanta--which didn't produce the violence seen in places like Birmingham, Selma, and Oxford--was a "City Too Busy To Hate." Maybe yesterday's vote was an indication that many people in Dixie have moved on.

West Tennessee Open Seat Creates More Ground For the Democrats to Defend

Well, it looks as if we might have been on to something in the last post. Yesterday brought word that one of the members I highlighted, Tennessee Democrat John Tanner (8th District), was announcing his retirement from Congress. While fear of electoral defeat does not appear to be the overriding factor in his decision making (he contemplated stepping down after his previous term despite the fact that he would ultimately run unopposed), his 2010 campaign was shaping up to be pretty daunting with his top challenger already having banked over $300,000 in campaign contributions.

Tanner has long been a leader of the House Blue Dogs and represents a rural chunk of western Tennessee. While west Tennessee has historically been the more Democratic part of the state, it has been trending Republican in recent cycles. John McCain garnered 56% last year while Bush received 53% in 2004. Native son Al Gore narrowly won the 8th with 51% in 2000. To expand a bit on the interesting geographic/partisan divisions of the Volunteer State, here's a bit from "The Transformation of Southern Politics":

The politics of contemporary Tennessee have their roots in the Civil War. The state rejected the Confederacy until after the fall of Fort Sumter and after President Lincoln asked for 75,000 troops. For almost a century after the Civil War, Tennessee politics remained frozen by the state's division in that conflict...Much of Middle Tennessee and most of west Tennessee was plantation country, but the mountainous East was dominated by small farmers who found slavery unprofitable and who rejected the notion that it was a divinely ordained institution.

The modern day 8th district is from that part of the state that supported secession and clung to its Democratic loyalties for generations. Thus, there is little history of GOP success in the region and it will be interesting to see whether the Democrats (who may push forward a credible candidate in State Senator and current gubenatorial candidate Roy Herron) are able to draw upon these longstanding loyalties and maintain control of the seat. Republican hopes lie in the fact that the district includes wealthier suburban areas of both Memphis and Nashville. Should the currently hypothesized "enthusiasm gap" between Democratic and GOP voters continue into next year, this could be where the race is won. Democrats, in addition to relying on history and tradition, have been able to draw upon the large African American population of the district--currently 22%. Their turnout will be crucial to preventing this district from flipping to the GOP for the first time since Reconstruction.

While I won't predict the outcome of next year's race, here's one thing that wouldn't surprise me. Congressman Tanner currently chairs the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security. If President Obama, as has been reported, pivots from the current focus on health care to a focus on long term deficits and entitlement reform, expect Tanner to be tapped as a member of an entitlement reform commission charged with creating recommendations for Congress.

**An interesting bit of trivia: the city of Jackson in the southern part of the district is the home of the only Pringles production facility in the U.S. due to the local abundance of cotton seed oil. Who knew?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Vulnerable Democrats in 2010--Where Should We Look???

Yesterday, John and I attended a CQ-Roll Call hosted event on the 2010 elections. Billed as a preview of what might lie ahead, the event featured three pollsters (representing Quinnipiac, Public Policy Polling, and Rasmussen) plus CQ Roll Call's Greg Giroux. Given that you had three pollsters present, the analysis was derived heavily from recent polling both nationwide and in a number of key states. In this sense, I would have liked to seen some analysis that took a broader, more demographic and historical perspective rather than one dominated by the snap shots of polls, but given the panel's composition the numbers presented were very much geared toward the present landscape. Nonetheless, there were some interesting insights.

The main takeaway from all the presentations is that the current environment is quite perilous for Democrats. With independents showing a greater predilection to support Republicans (not out of an underlying movement ideologically to the right but out of dissatisfaction with the status quo) and Democrats displaying complacency (despite giving President Obama consistently high marks), you not only get the results that we saw a few weeks back in New Jersey and Virginia, you also have the recipe for large GOP gains next fall.

On the congressional side, one caveat stressed by Giroux, and one that I hinted at a few months back, is that the Democrats don't appear as if they'll have to defend a large number of open seats. Unlike in 1994 where Republicans picked up the vast majority of seats created by Democratic retirements, only a small handfull of Democratic seats, to this point, are being vacated (and even fewer of those are in truly competitive districts). Thus, Republicans appear headed into an election year in which they must hope (against longstanding historical norms) to knock off a significant number of incumbents.

So where might we look for fertile GOP hunting grounds??? Here, Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling made a useful insight. He suggested that we look to parts of the country 1) in which GOP performance has increased, that are 2) currently represented by Democratic House members who 3) haven't had highly competitive races recently. These members might not be prepared for an anti-incumbent or anti-Democratic wave and might also be out of campaign fighting shape. When he mentioned this, I immediately thought of the map below, which I highlighted in the aftermath of the Obama/McCain campaign. The map chronicles change between the 2004 and 2008 election. Counties that became more Democratic in 2008 are shaded blue (with increasing darkness based on magnitude of change) while those shaded red became more Republican (also with increasing darkness based on magnitude). Thus, the vast majority of the counties in the U.S. gave Obama more support than Kerry.

In his remarks, Jensen talked quite a bit about some recently released polling from Arkansas. In it, Democratic incumbent Vic Snyder (2nd District) has seen his numbers crater as has Senator Blanche Lincoln. Snyder, especially, has had little challenge recently in his Little Rock based district. As we see from the map, Snyder (and Arkansas more broadly) fall into the band of counties that broke from the national trend and actually became more Republican last year. Similarly, if we extend our gaze northeastward we see how Tennessee counties also moved right. This brings to mind another handful of Democratic members, namely a cadre of blue dog Volunteer State Dems including Congressmen Lincoln Davis, Bart Gordon, and John Tanner who represent the 4th, 6th, and 8th districts respectively. A look at these gentlemen's recent elections show that they've been quite secure. Tanner has been the most insulated from a serious challenge. He was unopposed last year and received 73% and 74% in 2006 and 2004. Gordon's last three victories have come with 74%, 67%, and 64%. Davis has had closer races, winning with 59%, 66%, and 55%. A potential clue to their own sense of vulnerability might be gleaned from the much discussed (see previous two posts) health care vote from two weeks ago. In it, all three voted against passage.

Keep these two maps in mind as we continue through the health care debate and into next year's mid-terms.

The Geography of the House Democrats' Health Care Vote II: Is the Stupak Amendment Crucial For Passage???

I've modified the map I created for the last posting to include the Stupak Amendment. There are now four categories, each color coded, that members can fall into: 1) Those who voted for the final bill and against the Stupak Amendment (light green). 178 members fall into this group. 2) Those who voted for the final bill and for the Stupak Amendment (dark green). 41 members are in this group. 3) Those who voted against the final bill and against the Stupak Amendment (dark red). This group includes 16 members. 4) Those who voted against the final bill and for the Stupak Amendment (light red). This is 23 members. For a spreadsheet of the vote and categorization of the members, see here.

Which category each member fell into says a bit about how the leadership probably approached the decision about when to schedule the vote on the bill and how they viewed its likelihood of passage. It also sets up an interesting calculus for the leadership to solve as the bill moves to the Senate and then conference. Those members in the "Pro-Health Care, Anti-Stupak" camp would be those, going into the vote, with the strongest pro-reform position. In other words, this is the "Pelosi/Hoyer House Leadership" position. Those in the "Pro-Health Care, Pro-Stupak" position would seem to be made up, largely, of members more on the fence about reform and, given their pro-life position, needed the inclusion of the Stupak Amendment to push them off the fence and onto the side of reform. The "Anti-Health Care, Anti-Stupak" members are an interesting bunch. This cadre shows that issues besides abortion entered into their hesitancy to support the bill. These members appear more on the blue-doggish side of things (Herseth-Sandlin, Baird, Boyd). The "Anti-Health Care, Anti-Stupak" members also seem to include a number of the blue dog regulars (Shuler, Tanner, Taylor), but obviously have anti-abortion positions in addition to their fiscal concerns about the bill.

As the bill moves to the Senate, conference, and then back to the House, I wouldn't assume that these categories will remain constant. Obviously, how the next stages deal with the inclusion of the Stupak Amendment will be an important factor in how the pro-Reform coalition forms. I wonder about some of the members who voted for Stupak and whether they would oppose the bill should it come back to the House with the Amendment stripped out. Specifically, members like David Obey, John Murtha, and Jim Oberstar are long standing members of the caucus. Two are committee chairmen (Obey and Oberstar) and the other is an Appropriations Committee subcommittee chair (Murtha). These members have a strong incentive to keep the House in Democratic hands and the degree to which health care's failure could cripple the party and bring about defeat, they would seem willing to do everything to ensure its passage. Obey and Oberstar also have deeply held progressive beliefs that would make it very hard for them to vote no for a bill stripped of Stupak.

You also need to wonder about some of the members who voted no initially. What seems to have been driving the leadership in the vote counting and whipping process was the goal of 1) passing the bill with 2) The smallest majority possible. At this stage of the process all that mattered for House Democrats was getting the bill on to the Senate. The size of their majority was irrelevant as long as the bill proceeded to the next step of the process. Thus, there was no incentive to have members cast a hard vote, potentially angering their constituency, if they didn't have to. While many might point to the 220 votes Pelosi mustered (including the single Republican yes vote) and argue that the bill is in trouble, I'd argue that Pelosi, Hoyer, et al achieved exactly what they wanted. Thus, the next time the House votes, this time for final passage, one might assume that the leadership has, in case they need them, some of these initial no votes ready to vote yes should some of those that originally voted yes defect the second time around.

At this stage, it doesn't seem as if the inclusion or exclusion of the Stupak Amendment would have much predictive power on the votes of these "no but could be yes" members, on its own. There doesn't appear to be much of a pattern to the no votes (pro and anti Stupak). What could happen, though, is a situation in which the bill returns to the House, stripped of Stupak, setting off a revolt among some of the hard core pro-Stupak members. If this happens, and several of these members announce a willingness to vote no, Pelosi and Hoyer need to approach these members who originally voted no and try to get them to switch. In this sense, the "Anti Health Care, Anti Stupak" group would be the logical place to start. Thus, if we were to identify a group of House Democrats as potentially being the least likely to support the final bill, regardless of what is included in it, those whose districts are colored light red would be my pick.

In addition to the interesting geographical dimensions to this issue, what this discussion also illustrates extremely well is how intricate the leadership and vote whipping process is. A leadership team that isn't able to function well and can neither read nor get commitments from its members is going to fail miserably, especially on an issue as controversial as health care. When you are managing individual politicians, given their own interests, fears, foibles, and agendas, a tremendous amount of skill is required.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Geography of the House Democrats' Health Care Vote

I've created the above map to provide a visual sense of how the House Democratic caucus voted on the Health Care Reform measure. Its not quite as sharp as I'd like given the map I had to work with and Microsoft Paint's less than precise coloring, but it still works. Those districts colored green are the House Democrats who voted yes and those colored red are the 39 House Democrats who voted no. The only district that can't be seen too well is NY Rep. Mike McMahon (13th District)who hails from Staten Island. The full vote tally can be seen here.

When I first started to create the map, without looking at the vote too closely, the first instinct was that there would be some geographical correlation between support and opposition. Would the "no" votes all be from conservative, blue-doggish, southerners? The answer is pretty clearly no. Although many of what we might identify as "the usual suspects" did vote against the bill, the 39 no votes were actually quite geographically diverse. Something that is often lost in the discussion of the conservative end of the Democratic continuum is that these members are not universally from the south. While many of these non-southern members do hail from largely rural districts (see Colin Peterson--MN7, Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin--SDAt-Large, Walt Minnick--ID1), the fact that there were a smattering of northeasterners (now seen as the Democrats' geographic base) such as Congressmen McMahon (13th), Murphy (20th), and Massa (29th) from New York and John Adler (3rd) from New Jersey should be noted.

What many of these members have in common (and what has been discussed in the days since Saturday's vote) is that they come from districts carried by John McCain. Of the 39 Democratic "no" votes, 31 come from districts that voted Republican last year. What will be interesting to watch is whether any of these numbers shift when the bill comes back for final passage after Senate and conference committee action. Already brewing is an intra-party squabble over the House approved Stupak Amendment that limits abortion coverage in the reform package. While I doubt that pro-choice progressive Democrats will bolt should these limits survive the next few stages of the process, the possibility exists that pro-Stupak, pro-health care Dems might bolt should the restrictions be stripped (for some discussion of this dynamic, see here). One also has to assume that the Democratic leadership has a few votes in their back pocket--i.e. Dems who voted "no" on Saturday--that they have commitments from should their vote be needed in the end.

Also of note is that many of these "no" votes come from members early in their careers. More junior members are less secure in their districts and haven't built up a record of constituent service and trust that might allow them to go against the grain from time to time. Of these 39, 14 are currently in their first term with an additional 2 in just their second.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Catalytic Events and American Political History--The Fall of the Berlin Wall

This week marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and thus the march toward the end of the Cold War. In the subsequent two years, the various Iron Curtain countries underwent dramatic transformations as the Soviet Empire crumbled. The Europe of today--a unified Germany and an expanding European Union is vastly different from the one that developed in the aftermath of World War II. Its indisputable that the Cold War affected American politics and elections. While there is debate among scholars about how much foreign policy shapes individuals' voting decisions, there is no doubt that many of the events of the era created the context in which our elections were conducted. Primary among these would be the Red Scare and McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, and the Iran Hostage Crisis (also having an anniversary).

It has usually been assumed that, in partisan terms, the Cold War benefitted the Republican Party. For example, in the eleven presidential elections conducted between 1948 and 1988, the GOP won 7 garnering an average of 51% of the popular vote. In the five presidential elections since, they've won only two (including 2000 in which Al Gore won the most popular votes) and have seen their average popular vote total drop to 44.5%.

I haven't done any postings on last week's elections because, to be honest, I don't think there's a whole lot that can be gleaned from them. While most media outlets have been suggesting that the GOP pick-ups in Virginia and New Jersey are a sign of resurgence and should offer a warning to Democratic members of Congress, it seems to me that both races are an indication that governors, in particular, are being hurt by the tough economy. Hypothetically, if last week had seen two Republican Governors up for re-election (say Schwarzenegger and Pawlenty, perhaps), would they have won? Both have approval ratings right now that are less than stellar. If they'd have lost, how would last Tuesday have been interpreted?

Slightly more interesting was the special election in New York's 23rd district that saw the Democrats pick up the seat vacated by Republican and now Army Secretary John McHugh. Most of the coverage of that race centered on the intra-GOP rift that developed when local party leaders nominated NY assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava. The pro-choice, pro-gay marriage moderate Scozzafava was soon challenged by Doug Hoffman, running on the Conservative Party line. After weeks of attacks from her right flank, led by the Club for Growth and others, Scozzafava dropped out of the race on the final weekend and threw her support behind Democratic nominee Bill Owens, who ultimately won. The Scozzafava / Hoffman tussle illustrates a broader tension within the GOP, something that the Cold War largely succeeded in keeping under wraps. Last week a senior GOP House member spoke to my students and talked about how, in his mind, the Republican coalition is made up of three groups, no two of which consistently get along: 1) fiscal conservatives; 2) social conservatives; and 3) foreign policy conservatives. The Cold War, and the party's emphasis on defeating the Soviet Union, largely allowed this loose coalition to stay together. Issues that now provide heartburn for the party were put on the backburner, allowing the Republicans to mount a unified effort against the much more fractured Democratic coaltion. With the fall of the Soviets, Democrats (after a long period of soul searching and moderating) were able to compete on much more favorable terrain. While George W. Bush tried, it seems, to resuscitate the original Cold War electoral stragegy under the guise of the "War on Terror," the success of this strategy outside of 2002 and 2004 has been less than complete. Thus, where the GOP goes from here on out is unclear, despite some of the results from last Tuesday.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hamlet Coming to the U.S. Senate For a (Hopefully) Limited Run

As the healthcare debate slowly winds its way toward a coda, we now move to the stage where every individual senator will take center stage to use their power to try and exert concessions from Majority Leader Reid and President Obama. With efforts underway to 1) avert a filibuster; 2) include a public option of some form; and 3) hopefully have some (read Olympia Snowe) bipartisan support, a large handful of senators occupying the right flank of the Democratic spectrum, plus Republican moderates like Snowe, each know that the path to passage must pass through them.

Part of being a senator, it seems, is maximizing one's leverage and place in the limelight. To do so, one can't commit too early on the legislation in question. Rather, there's an incentive to deliberate, ponder, and agonize over the decision. Hence, we will see over the next weeks a large cast of characters playing Hamlet in the backrooms of the capitol and especially through the media. To vote for cloture or allow debate to proceed but vote against final demand that the public option be weakened...those are the questions. Today's Politico gives a short rundown of some of the actors in question. Lets take a look at some of the senators as well as their recent and upcoming campaigns for some insight into how they may be approaching this process.

Ben Nelson (D-NE). Nelson is arguably the most conservative Democrat in the Senate and, as a result, gets a lot of attention as Harry Reid tries to avert filibusters over a wide range of issues. As the Politico story notes, he has been non-committal on virtually every aspect of the current Senate bill although earlier this year he came out against a public option. Not a member of any of the committees actively involved in the health care debate, he hasn't had to show many of his cards to this point. While Nebraska has been a reliably Republican state, Nelson (a former governor) was handily re-elected in 2006 and thus doesn't face voters until 2012. A part of his background to note is that Nelson was once CEO of the Central National Insurance Group and was Director of the Nebraska Department of Insurance.

Blanche Lincoln (D-AR). Lincoln has been more involved in the deliberations to this point as a member of the Senate Finance Committee and voted against the public option during the drafting of the Baucus healthcare bill. Lincoln is also up for re-election next year. She gained 55% and 56% in her previous two elections, which were preceded by two House terms. What's interesting here is that Lincoln is viewed as vulnerable, despite the fact that no clear cut opponent against her has yet emerged. In a series of hypothetical matchups, though, her numbers are underwhelming. While the Razorback state has been in the Republican camp in recent presidential elections (with the exception of Bill Clinton's two wins), its congressional delegation has been overwhelmingly Democratic--though markedly Blue Dog-ish. Lincoln's Senate colleague David Pryor can also be viewed as somewhat on the fence.

Joe Lieberman (I-CT). The bane of progressives' existence, Lieberman made waves yesterday by signaling his willingness to join a Republican filibuster against the Reid bill. Lieberman, as we know, was defeated in the Democratic Senate primary in Connecticut in 2006, only to re-emerge, and win, as an Independent. Since then he has proven a constant thorn in the side of his Democratic colleagues with the height of his apostasy coming with his endorsement of John McCain in last year's presidential race. It seems as if President Obama's willingness to look past this (and signal to Reid his preference that Lieberman retain his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee) hasn't kept Lieberman from straying from the reservation.

Mary Landrieu (D-LA). Landrieu, just re-elected last year with 52% of the vote (she received 52% in 2002 and 50% in 1996), is using her post as chair of the Senate Small Business committee to advocate for the needs of small business owners (see additional coverage here). Up until this point Landrieu has been skeptical of the public option but may prove amenable to a bill including the "opt out" provision for states. Representing a state that seems to be moving more to the right, this compromise could allow her to thread the needle of both supporting health care reform (and her party) but representing the needs (and doubts) of her constituents.

Olympia Snowe (R-ME). The most powerful woman in Washington. Throughout the crafting of health care legislation in the Senate--especially as a member of Max Baucus' "gang of six"--Snowe has been a pivotal player. Her vote in favor of a final passage, even if she is the only Republican "Yes" vote in either the House or Senate, will allow the package to be labelled "bi-partisan." She is virtually unbeatable in Maine and recent polling suggests that her favorability is higher among Maine Democrats than Republicans. Reid's decision to include an "opt-out" public option in his version of the bill, rather than Snowe's preferred "trigger," has turned her mood sour, however.

Where any of these senators end up is anyone's guess. Health care supporters have to hope that Harry Reid knows which levers to pull for each of these members. Senate leadership, oftentimes referred to as "herding cats," requires an almost preternatural understanding of human nature. Is a senator being sincere? Is he bluffing? Is he truly undecided? Can he be pressured? Is he feigning indecision to get attention for something else? All of this must be determined and a response crafted. While some might fear that catering too much to those in the middle jeopardizes the support of Democrats on the left flank, its hard to envision a scenario in which Senate liberals don't support whatever emerges in the end. So, as we go through the next several weeks the Senate will oftentimes seem less like a legislature and more like a theater.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Does Voting Democratic Make You More "Manly"???

Apparently the feeling of winning or losing an election actually affects one's physiology. A newly released study suggests that on election night, the testosterone levels of male voters changed when the results were broadcast. Male McCain voters saw a precipitous drop in their testosterone upon learning that their candidate had lost, whereas male Obama voters saw no change in their testosterone. In the parlance of the anthropologists and pharmacologists behind the study (which had participants submit saliva samples throughout the evening) elections are "dominance contests" which, like other competitions in society, "are a critical component of determining the leadership of social hierarchies." The feeling of victory of defeat, despite the fact that one did not win or lose personally, but vicariously, apparently triggers something quite deep in our psyches. Considering a variety of other variables, the authors find that:

the pattern of testosterone change remained significant even when variance in a multitude of factors was controlled for including voters' political values, support intensity for the candidates, timing of saliva collection, levels of conservatism, consumption of alcohol on the night of the election, and social surroundings on the night of the election.

Also of note is the fact that the testosterone levels of females was unchanged, regardless of whether one supported Obama or McCain. Apparently women are much more even keeled than men in this regard.

One can imagine all the arm chair extrapolation one could make from this study. Is Republican opposition to Obama not just based on policy differences but rooted much more deeply in a fear of "dominance"??? Can this be applied more broadly to some geographical variations in the vote--i.e. a southern inferiority complex??? One could run wild with this type of stuff, so feel free to hypothesize in the comments section. Anyhow, this is certainly a different way of looking at voting than what we normally consider here.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Catalytic Events and American Political History--John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry

In the course of American history few events have proven more influential than the Civil War. One could probably argue that, given the questions left unfinished by the country's founding, the Civil War was inevitable. One can also argue that, given how the Civil War and Reconstruction divided the country, we are still living with its aftermath. The country's "original sin" of slavery, while ended by the sword (and constitutional amendment) has left a legacy--far more intractable--of racism and inequality.

In the march toward the Civil War, few events were more "catalytic" than the raid on Harpers Ferry Virginia by John Brown. This weekend marks the 150th anniversary of Brown's ill-fated attempt to mobilize an armed insurrection of slaves and abolitionists and lead them throughout the countryside, striking a mortal blow to bondage in America. The story of John Brown is incredibly fascinating, despite the fact that his raid on Harpers Ferry ended in failure and his hanging. While his rag-tag band, in retrospect, seemed destined to fail (a judgment made at the time by abolitionist Frederick Douglass), what John Brown did, in many people's eyes, was send a shock wave throughout the south and move the country, perhaps inextricably, toward war. Whether John Brown was a prophet or terrorist, his place in American history cannot be denied.

To get a sense of John Brown, his raid, and its effect on the country, please check out this lecture by Yale historian David Blight. In fact, spend some time with his entire course on the Civil War and Reconstruction. This series of lectures is absolutely riveting. I'm only half way through them and have been deliberately pacing myself. Each lecture sends me to the library and the internet to further immerse myself in this most important episode of our history.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Musical Chairs In the Upper Chamber

In writing last week's post about the politics of small states, I came across the interesting Senate career of North Dakota's Kent Conrad. To recap, Conrad was elected to the Senate in 1986 with a pledge to serve only one term unless the budget deficit was reduced. When it wasn't he announced that he wouldn't seek re-election, allowing then House member Byron Dorgan to run for, and win, the Senate seat. However, a few months later, North Dakota's senior senator, Quentin Burdick, died. Upon entreaties from state Democrats, Conrad reconsidered his resignation and ran successfully in the special election to succeed Burdick. He has held that seat ever since. In fact, he resigned his first Senate seat early, allowing Dorgan to gain a month of seniority, and was sworn into Burdick's old seat the same day. Thus, not only does Conrad have the interesting history of holding both of his state's Senate seats, he held them both on the same day!!!

It turns out that Conrad is not alone in holding both of his state's Senate seats. In fact, he shares this bit of trivia with one of his colleagues--New Jersey's Frank Lautenberg. While I was aware of Lautenberg's entrance--exit--entrance to the Senate I hadn't realized the similarity with Conrad. In Lautenberg's case, he was first elected in 1982 to the seat vacated by previous incumbent Harrison Williams (who was convicted in the Abscam probe). After two successful re-elections, Lautenberg announced his retirement in 2000 and was succeeded by now NJ Governor Jon Corzine. When Lautenberg left, the Garden State's other Senator was Democrat Bob Torricelli. Due to campaign finance shenanigans (in New Jersey??!!), Torricelli abandoned his 2002 re-election campaign. In haste, Democrats turned to Lautenberg to keep the seat in the party's hands. He obliged, came out of retirement and won the seat (and was successfully re-elected last year).

Earlier this week I challenged my U.S. Congress students to find the similarity between Conrad and Lautenberg--having not discussed any of this with them. I thought it would take a few days worth of digging but within two hours two of them had solved the riddle. The offer of extra credit points, plus the internet, will do that I guess.

On a final note, there is one other recent member of the Senate who also has the distinction of holding both seats during their career--Washington's Slade Gorton. His case is perhaps the most interesting. Gorton, a Republican, first came to the Senate in the Republicans' 1980 Senate landslide, defeating Washington's longtime incumbent, and Senate titan, Warren Magnuson. 1986, as we know, was a very different year than 1980, and Gorton was swept out of office by challenger Brock Adams after just one term. Two years later, in 1988, Gorton re-emerged to seek the seat being vacated by the state's other Senator, Republican Dan Evans. Gorton won, defeating then House Democrat Mike Lowry. In 1994 (another great Republican year) Gorton was re-elected. In 2000, though, he was challenged by former House Democrat Maria Cantwell. In a razor thin race, Cantwell was victorious by a mere 2000 votes (and was since re-elected in 2006). Thus, Gorton has not only held both of Washington's Senate seats, he has also lost them both--Conrad and Lautenberg have held both having never lost. In addition, he has been both the junior and senior Senator from Washington for both seats!!!

So that's three senators who have held both of their state's Senate seats--a pretty fascinating bit of trivia. If anyone knows of others who have done this I'd be interested to know. There have to be earlier examples, especially from the period before the direct election of senators. Another bit of trivia I'm wondering about--again, please help--Has anyone ever been elected to Congress from two different states over the course of their career???

**Caricatures by Kerry Waghorn

**Update. One of my former students, via the comments section, identifies former Senator James Shields who, over the course of several decades in the mid 19th century, represented three states. Good work.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

What Happens When You've Got More Senators Than Representatives??? The Crazy, Confusing, and Convoluted Politics of Our Smallest States

Republicans got a boost yesterday when Delaware House member Mike Castle announced that he would seek the Senate seat vacated by Vice President Joe Biden. With Biden's departure, the seat has been temporarily filled by appointed Senator Ted Kaufman, who vowed not to seek election to the remainder of Biden's term. Castle is a politician of long standing and high popularity in the First State. Since 1966 he has served in the Delware House and Senate, as Lieutenant Governor and Governor, and as the state's sole House member since 1993. That's quite an impressive resume. While Delaware went overwhelmingly for Barack Obama last year and Democrats have been dominant in the state of late, Castle's candidacy immediately gives the Republicans an opportunity to chip into the Democrats' 60 seat caucus. On the Democratic side, all eyes are now on Attorney General Beau Biden (son of Joe) to see whether he enters the race to seek his dad's old seat.

Besides setting up a potential barn burner of a race, Castle's candidacy gives us a chance to explore the politics of those smallest of states--those with only a single House member. When I read about Castle's entrance, I got to thinking about the advantages of running for a higher office within the same constituency as the one you're leaving. When other House member's seek to move on to the Senate or Governor, they need to introduce themselves to hundreds of thousands of new voters--a daunting and expensive task. Furthermore, the partisanship of one's House district likely differs dramatically from the state as a whole. Candidates like Castle don't have to worry about this. Thus, these Senate candidates might find themselves running a redux of their previous House races. What I didn't know was whether or not this was truly the case. How often do House members from single district states move on to the Senate??? Let's take a look. What we find is a fascinating, yet complicated, tangle of politicians, offices, and campaigns.

There are two ways we might look at this phenomenon. First, we can look at the Senate delegations of those states with at-large House districts and see how many came from the House. There are currently seven states that have a single House member--Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming. Aside from Kaufman, the placeholder in Delaware, that leaves 13 Senators. Of these, 6 have previous service as their state's House member: Tom Carper (DE); Max Baucus (MT); Byron Dorgan (ND); Tim Johnson (SD); John Thune (SD); and Bernie Sanders (VT). Of these, 4 moved to the Senate directly from the House. The exceptions are Tom Carper who served two terms as Delaware Governor between the House and the Senate and John Thune who took an interesting path between the two chambers. After serving three House terms, Thune decided to challenge incumbent Senator Tim Johnson in 2002. After narrowly losing that race, he reloaded and mounted an attack on the other state's Senator, Tom Daschle, and was successful in a narrowly decided contest just two years later. The Thune example is instructive in a couple of ways. First, these races in small states are oftentimes extremely close. Due to the fact that Senators (namely incumbents) running against a House challenger share the same constituency, many of the normal incumbency advantages disappear now that both candidates share them. Second, Thune's case shows us how these states tend to have a small cadre of politicians who always seem to run against each other--appearing and reappearing as different elections get contested over time (you can throw gubenatorial contests in here as well).

This second point can be seen further as we look at the next way to explore this phenomenon. Rather than looking at the Senate delegations and tracing their paths backwards, we can look at the House members from these states and see who tried to move up--and whether or not they were successful. Here things can get a little nutty, especially in the Dakotas. Rather than try and create a chart or spreadsheet to present the data here, its probably best to just go state by state. I've taken a look at each of these states over the past few decades. I'd also note that their single district status has changed at different times. Montana, for example, became a single member state after the 1990 census while North Dakota lost a seat after the 1970 census and South Dakota after 1980.

Alaska: Alaska is a simple case to explore in that there's been no movement. Alaska's lone House member, Republican Don Young has held his seat since 1973 and has not attempted any run for higher office.

Delaware: Going back to the mid-60's, Delaware has had five House members. As noted above, Mike Castle has held the seat since his election in 1992. Prior to him, now Senator Tom Carper (D) held the seat between 1983 and 1993 when he assumed the governorship. He became Senator upon the retirement of incumbent Republican William Roth. Before Carper the seat was held for three terms by Republican Thomas Evans who was defeated by Carper (interesting backstory here). From 1971 until 1977 Pete DuPont IV (R) was in office before vacating the seat to run for, and win, the governor's office. DuPont was elected upon the vacancy of the seat by William Roth who held it between 1967 and his movement to the Senate following the 1970 election. Got that??? Essentially the House, Governor, and Senate seats from the state acted as a game of musical chairs for a very small set of actors (Carper, Roth, DuPont, and now maybe Castle).

Montana: Montana is a little more easy to follow with not a whole lot of movement. The current House member, Republican Dennis Rehberg has held the seat since his election in 2000. Previous to Rehberg, Republican Rick Hill held the seat for two terms before retiring. It was during the term of Hill's predecessor, Democrat Pat Williams, that Montana switched from two to one House seats. Williams, first elected in 1978, retired in 1996 without seeking to move to the Senate. Williams was preceded in the then 1st District by now Senator Max Baucus who was first elected to the House in 1974. So Baucus fits the pattern of taking advantage of a House seat to move up to the Senate.

North Dakota: This is going to be a bit complicated. Since 1993 North Dakota's House seat has been held by Democrat Earl Pomeroy. Before Pomeroy, current Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan occupied the office beginning with his election in 1980. Dorgan won election to the Senate in 1992 upon the retirement of Democratic Senator Kent Conrad. Wait. Isn't Conrad currently the other North Dakota senator??? Yes he is and this is where things get weird. Conrad was elected to the Senate first in 1986 from the position of ND Tax Commissioner (a position also held by Dorgan earlier in his career!!!) and promised to serve only one term unless the country's trade and budget deficits were not reduced. With the fiscal situation not resolved, Conrad announced his retirement in 1992. Later that year, however, the state's other Senator (Dorgan's still in the House, remember) Quentin Burdick died suddenly leaving the seat vacant. Upon the entreaties of state Democrats, Conrad decided to run in the special election which he subsequently won. So Kent Conrad has been elected to both of North Dakota's Senate seats (but not its House seat). He and Dorgan essentially entered the Senate at the same time.

OK, where were we? Prior to Byron Dorgan, ND's House seat was held by Republican Mark Andrews, first elected in 1964. In 1980, he gave up the seat to run for, and win, the open Senate seat vacated by Milton Young. In 1986 Andrews was defeated by Conrad. If anyone can keep this convoluted bit of political history straight they win the Lifetime Achievement Award. The story of North Dakota, like Delaware, shows how a few politicians seem to continuously jockey for a limited number of offices.

South Dakota: A little less complicated than its northern neighbor, but not much so. The current SD rep. is Democrat Stephanie Herseth Sandlin who won the seat in a 2004 special election. That race was contested when her predecessor, Republican Bill Janklow (first elected in 2002 and a former Governor to boot) resigned upon being convicted of vehicular manslaughter. Janklow was elected when previous Rep. John Thune (see above) gave up the seat to run against, yet lose to, current Senator Tim Johnson. Remember, Thune came back in 2004 to knock off Tom Daschle (who we'll read more about in a second). Prior to Thune, the House seat was held by Tim Johnson, first elected in 1986. Johnson gave up the seat in '96 to run against, and ultimately beat, incumbent Senator Larry Pressler. Prior to Johnson, South Dakota's lone House member was??? That's right, Tom Daschle!!! Daschle vacated the seat in '86 to challenge and beat the other incumbent Senator James Abdnor. During Daschle's time in the House South Dakota lost its second House seat, which for two terms was held by----Larry Pressler until he moved to the Senate in 1979. That's four members--Pressler, Daschle, Johnson, and Thune--who've held both the House and Senate seats from the state and have run against and succeeded each other in various permutations.

Vermont: The current Vermonter in the House is Democrat Peter Welch, first elected in 2006. Welch's predecessor was current Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders moved to the Senate directly from the House, to which he was first elected in 1990. Sanders Senate seat was created by the retirement of Independent (and former Republican) James Jeffords. Jeffords himself had held the House seat from 1975 to 1988. The two year interval between Jeffords and Sanders was the House term of Republican Peter Smith, who Sanders knocked off in 1990.

Wyoming: Wyoming is now represented by freshman Republican Cynthia Lummis who took the spot of retiring Republican Barbara Cubin, first elected in 1994. Cubin's predecessor was Craig Thomas. Thomas, first elected to the House seat in 1990, gave up the seat to run for, and win, the Senate seat of retiring Republican Malcolm Wallop. Thomas captured the House seat when then Rep. Dick Cheney vacated it to become George H.W. Bush's Secretary of Defense. Prior to Cheney (first elected in 1978), Wyoming's seat was held by Republican Teno Roncalio, who retired making way for Cheney.

Thus, in only one of these states, Alaska, have we not seen a House member successfully parlay their incumbency into a Senate seat at some point. The only reason Alaska hasn't seen this happen, perhaps, is because of 1) the long incumbency of both its House member and one of its Senators, Ted Stevens (defeated last year); and 2) its strong Republicanism, ensuring little partisan competition for these coveted few spots. Everywhere else we've seen much more fluidity with a seemingly constant cast of characters moving around from office to office throughout their careers and finding themselves often opposing a set of "usual suspects." With small states offering only a limited number of opportunities for politicians to achieve their ambitions, things can get awfully crowded at the top.

Have you kept all of this straight???

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Campaigning to Lead the Ungovernable City

A recent Time magazine cover story on Detroit portrays a city ravaged by the current recession, rendering it virtually ungovernable. Consider: Unemployment currently sits at 30% (!!!); the public school system is in receivership; and the city coffers are $300 million in the red. Whereas Detroit was at one time the country's fifth largest city, it has been hemorrhaging population and now ranks eleventh nationally with just over 900,000 residents. While the auto industry reigned, the city had no incentive to diversify its economy. Now that we've seen the Big 3 teeter on the verge of collapse, this shortsightedness has come back to haunt the region. While a city like Pittsburgh--equally reliant on a single industry a few generations back--has weathered globalization and economic difficulties quite well by becoming a leader in health care and high tech, Detroit is in danger of imploding.

If matters weren't bad enough, Detroit's recent political leadership has been dismal. Disgraced former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was forced to resign in the wake of numerous allegations of corruption, infidelity, and obstruction of justice. Trying to right the ship is Dave Bing, former Detroit Piston and successful business executive. Bing has brought to the job a no nonsense style and willingness to rumple feathers to get things done. Victorious in a 15 person Democratic primary (!!!) to complete Kilpatrick's unfinished term (see results here), Bing is now running for a full term on November 3. In reading the profile's of Bing and his candidacy one gets the sense that while he may not be loved, he may be the city's best hope. Reluctant to glad hand and do the banquet circuit, Bing has alienated a number of the city's key constituencies, including the public sector unions. Nonetheless, most commentary suggests that he'll be victorious nonetheless. Given the work ahead of him, one wonders why anyone would want the job in the first place.

**Above photo via

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Riposte to My Last Book Club

After my last post I got to wondering whether I was being a little hard on the Palmetto State. Pulling out V.O. Key when talking about the south (and race) is certainly heavy artillery, but his conclusions--while valid in 1949--may no longer hold. So we should maybe look at more recent history. To help with this, I recently came across a book that was specifically designed to be an update of Key's "Southern Politics." From the title you get a sense that the authors wanted to take another look, state by state, at what Key explored. "The Transformation of Southern Politics," written by Jack Bass and Walter DeVries shows how, in the years after Key, two party politics began to emerge across the south. Whereas Key found factionalism within the solidly Democratic south to be the traditional form of politics, we here start to see the makings of more "rational" competition between the parties.

I should note, though, that this book was written in 1976 so we don't have the opportunity to explore the full arc of southern political transformation to the point where the region is now the most Republican part of the country. Indeed, in many of the states Bass and DeVries explore, parity between the parties had yet to emerge by the mid-70's. Nonetheless, the process was under way, spurred by several events and forces. Among these was the 1949 Dixiecrat revolt, Barry Goldwater's 1964 inroads in Dixie, as well as a social transformation that saw a massive in-migration into the south from many northern states. While these forces tended to help Republicans, Democrats also saw their politics transform--and this is a process the authors focus on. With the 1965 Voting Rights Act's passage, southern politicians could no longer ignore the numerical strength of black voters. In fact, they now had the incentive to court them. Thus, the 60's and 70's saw the emergence of many Democratic politicians who were much more moderate, and indeed sometimes progressive, on the issue of race in comparison to their predecessors. Jimmy Carter is probably the best example but lesser known figures like Ernest Hollings in South Carolina, Dale Bumpers in Arkansas, and Reubin Askew in Florida saw their rise assisted by black votes. Another consequence of the Voting Rights Act's passage, along with the breakup of malapportioned state legislative districts, was the election of sizable numbers of black politicians. Thus, Key's "Southern Politics" is very much in recession by this time.

In their chapter on South Carolina titled "The Changing Politics of Color," Bass and DeVries suggest that the state's politics, along with Tennessee's, were the furthest along in developing a true two party system. The responsibility for the growth and early maturation of SC's Republicans can be most ascribed to Strom Thurmond. After first bolting the Democrats to run as a Dixiecrat in 1948, Thurmond joined the Republican ranks and was elected to the Senate. One story that I found fascinating in Rick Perlstein's "Nixonland" was the role that Thurmond played in the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. By providing affirmation of Nixon's bona fides (some would call this a wink and a nod to the "Southern Strategy"), Nixon was able to win South Carolina, not only denying it to George Wallace who swept the rest of the Deep South, but helping to cement his victory over Hubert Humphrey.

While South Carolinian, and southern politics more broadly, was changing, that's not to say that some of the characteristics Key identified had disappeared. Voting could still be very racially polarized. In his recent look at southern politics, Thomas Schaller argues that white southern voters oftentimes increase their participation in response to high levels of black voting--in other words, the fear that black voters could tilt elections leads whites to vote in reaction to them (and thus for Republicans). Bass and DeVries found a similar phenomenon in South Carolina:

A look at county data reveals, as expected, that the combination of heavy black population and a high rate of black participation greatly stimulates white political participation. Whites in all 12 of the majority black counties were registered at a higher percentage than the state average of 61.3 percent. In ten of the counties the white registration rate was more than 15 points higher than the statewide rate. As a percentage of those registered, whites in the majority black counties voted at a slightly higher rate than the state average, and blacks in those counties at a rate about equal to the state average.

Thus, there's a mixture of both fluidity and stability in the politics of the south. What we need to look at next is the subsequent chapter of southern political history--the rise of Reagan, the maturation of the Republican Party across the region, and its subsequent dominance epitomized in the 1994 congressional election. Bass and DeVries have updated the version that I have so that is probably the best place to start but I'll try and search out some more works, comprehensive in scope, to continue this process of exploration.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

From Now On, Is Everything About Race???

Over the past week, especially since President Obama’s health care speech to Congress, the political debate in Washington and across the country has reached a heightened sense of craziness. Crystallized by the outburst of South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson—and the subsequent vote of disapproval in the House yesterday—the issue of race has once again been raised. Wilson’s “You lie!” comment has been interpreted in a variety of ways, with many arguing that racism lies not far beneath the surface. The most high profile advocate of this position is former President jimmy Carter. Commentary about Wilson’s motivations has been more divided.

As readers of this blog know, the role of race in American politics and society fascinates me. The Obama candidacy and now presidency have presented us with the opportunity to look, perhaps as never before, at how race defines and divides us. In theorizing about race, though, we need to be extremely careful—not because of the sensitivity of the issue and a fear of being either too overly or insufficiently “politically correct”—but because of how difficult it is to prove anything, especially when it comes to individuals’ motivations, beliefs, and biases. A case for such humility was made recently by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his blog over at The Atlantic (one of my favorites).

So having said this, I want to proceed gingerly in talking about this series of events. Nonetheless, the Wilson case brings to the fore some fascinating political/geographical history--stuff that gets us excited here. Whenever I’ve ventured to talk about race, especially in terms of its salience in the south, I turn to the great work by V.O. Key, “Southern Politics,” originally published in 1949. Key’s work was a landmark study of how the “solid south” evolved in the post-bellum south. In his introduction, Key argues

In its grand outlines the politics of the South revolves around the position of the Negro. It is at times interpreted as a politics of cotton, as a politics of free trade, as a politics of agrarian poverty, or as a politics of planter and plutocrat. Although such interpretations have a superficial validity, in the last analysis the major peculiarities of southern politics go back to the Negro. Whatever phase of the southern political process one seeks to understand, sooner or later the trail of inquiry leads to the Negro.

The main “peculiarity” Key explores is why traditional two party politics never emerged in the south after the Civil War. Whereas “rational” politics entails conflicts around economic issues—and thus divides the classes—such cleavages never took hold in the south’s politics. The reason, for Key, was because the fear of black advancement and political political power united both rich and poor whites. Even though poor whites and blacks shared many economic interests, an alliance between the two never congealed. Thus, southern politics was more factional than ideological, playing out completely within the arena of the Democratic party which, due to Jim Crow, was a totally white enterprise.

In Key’s analysis of individual southern states, he found that this type of politics was most entrenched in those areas with the largest black populations. The “blacker” a state or county, the greater incentive there was for whites to unite. Of all the southern states, South Carolina had the second largest black population, second only to Mississippi. In fact, Key entitled his chapter on the Palmetto State “The Politics of Color.” He opens this chapter by noting:

South Carolina has had a succession of spectacular race orators who almost blanket out the achievements of its abler and more temperate leaders, such as James F. Byrnes. While others shared their views, the politicians of South Carolina—and Mississippi—have put the white-supremacy case most bitterly, most uncompromisingly, most vindictively.

Does this history make Joe Wilson’s outburst racist? Who knows. Is he responsible for this history? Of course not. But history is hard to escape and it shapes people’s context and it shapes our culture. And when we’re discussing American history and especially that of the south and its politics, we can’t ignore race, even though doing so would make us more comfortable. We should also recognize that others will consider it and have their own judgments shaped by their particular experiences and histories. An interesting aspect of the Wilson brouhaha has been the role played by fellow SC congressman, and Democratic Whip, James Clyburn. Clyburn represents the neighboring district in the state and has a storied personal history as a leader of the civil rights struggle there. That he was the member driving the move to admonish Wilson should remind us how personal this issue can be.

Interestingly—and here we can find more sure footing—when one looks at Congressman Wilson’s district, one finds that his district is not one where we’d expect quite the level of demagoguery that Key described. The 2nd District finds itself, of the state’s 6, in the middle in terms of its racial composition. It is the third “blackest” with African Americans making up roughly 26% of the population. Also, it has the highest median income in the state and the highest proportion of residents with a college degree. Recent conventional wisdom has suggested that those with higher incomes and education will be the least likely to hold unenlightened views on race. In last year’s presidential race the 2nd was Obama’s third best district, giving him 45% of the vote. Furthermore, as has been noted at length over the past week, Wilson had a relatively close re-election last time, garnering only 54% of the vote. Both candidates have used the events of the past week to rake in huge sums of money for next year’s rematch. Thus, there doesn't seem to be much incentive, in a purely political sense, for Wilson to become the new incarnation of George Wallace.

So where does this leave us??? The fact that we’ve been focused on the meaning of two words over the past week—and that this meaning has been interpreted by many to have sinister racial undertones—tells us that we’ve not yet arrived at a mythical “post racial” America. Given our history and how much in is entwined into our consciousness, perhaps we never will. Where it does leave us is with a realization that these types of debates, clashes, and parsings of words are going to be with us for a while. The Obama presidency makes this unavoidable. However much we might want our political fights (in the best sense of the word) to be “just” about health care, the economy, education, and the like, they won’t be. Beneath the surface of all of these will be the unspoken, and often loudly spoken, role of race in America. We best proceed humbly.
**Top image, slave map of South Carolina, originally published in The Atlantic in 1861.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Is It Too Early To Be Thinking About 2010???

As August wraps up and the Democrats emerge from a month long, town hall meeting inspired, collective freak-out, the punditry is already asking whether the Dems are doomed come next fall. A recent Politico story samples opinion from the likes of Charlie Cook and Nate Silver, both of whom seem to be forcasting dire straits ahead.

All of this seems extremely premature to me. With 14 months to go until the voting we (if we are honest) have to acknowledge that we have no idea what the political and party dynamics will be that far down the road. While the health care debate has been (predictably) ugly, confusing, and divisive, it's also pretty much assured that something will pass. When it does, things will calm down. Perhaps this isn't the best time to be making predictions. Its also useful to put the upcoming election into some broader context.

Toward the end of the Politico story, the issue of retirements comes up. This, I'd argue, is a good place to start. Open seat races caused by an incumbents' retirements have always provided parties with their best opportunity to gain seats. The formidable incumbency advantages of name recognition, legislative record, constituency service, and fundraising might disappear, creating a much more level playing field. Should the out-party manage to field and support a credible candidate they can feasibly gain the seat. A crucial variable in their ability to do this, of course, is the underlying nature of the district itself. A Democrat retiring from a solidly liberal district isn't going to be likely to change, whatever the Republican candidate does. To look at the role that retirements play in assisting party gains, I created the following chart, focusing on the House of Representatives. Senate races have a much more individualistic dynamic that we'll explore over the coming months.

The above chart shows each party's success in gaining seats for each congressional election cycle since 1960. Column 2 indicates the total number of House retirements for that particular cycle. Column 3 provides the total number of Democratic retirements, followed by the number of those retirements lost. Column 5 provides the percentage of retirements lost. Column 6 notes the total number of Democratic losses (open seat losses plus incumbents defeated). Column 7 (based on the Republican numbers) shows how many of the Democrats' total gains for that year were the result of their capture of open seats. The remaining columns provide the same data for Republicans over this period.

So what do we see? First, both parties are quite successful in defending the seats of their retirees. Both parties lost, on average over the length of this data set, 29.5% of their open seats. Thus, if a party wants to rely on retirements to make big gains, they are going to need an extremely large number of retirements from the other side. The best example of this is 1994. I've highlighted 1994 in the chart (as with 2006) to show what happens during cycles when the party majority switches. In '94, Republicans managed to win 21 of the 28 vacancies created by Democratic retirements. These wins gave them 38% of the seats they captured that year. While they managed to unseat a very large number of incumbent Dems, these open seat wins were crucial.

A second trend that jumps out is that the Democrats have been more reliant on open seat wins to make their gains than Republicans have been. The Dems have averaged 46.5% of their gains through open seat wins as opposed to the Republicans 39%. Thus, for the Republicans in 2010, the data would seem to point to their need to knock of Democratic incumbents--at least given past trends. For them to do this, though, they'll need to target vulnerable Dems--probably those from moderate to Republican leaning districts. Hence, we've seen how the Blue Dogs have been at the center of the current hand wringing. One thing I've wondered about, as a result of how well the Democrats have done in the past two cycles, is whether the party is at its high water mark in terms of seats. In other words how many more districts, even under the most favorable circumstances, could possibly go Democratic? It's hard to think of many. Thus, any gains that the Republicans might make next year might be the result not of voter backlash against health care or Obama, but rather a natural correction in the electorate, a return to equilibrium if you will. Rather than doing so poorly now, it may be that the Democrats did too well in '06 and '08.

Looking ahead to 2010 with attention on retirements, what do we know at this point? Currently, 16 House members have announced their retirements (10 Republican and 6 Democrat). Looking at the range of this data set, one sees that even allowing for more retirement announcements in the future, 2010 doesn't seem like it will be a year with a large number of retirements--hence opportunities--for Republicans. With a new majority and now a President of their party in the White House, Democrats have an incentive to stay in office and push their policy agenda. One can also be sure that party leaders are pushing their members to stay put rather than retire or seek higher office. Thus, should some of these early prognostications materialize, they would seem to have to be driven by incumbent defeats. Not only are these difficult to produce individually, but to do so in large number and across numerous regions requires extremely unusual circumstances. While the current health care debate has certainly gotten some House Democrats scared, we shouldn't automatically assume that 2010 is going to be the equivalent of 1994 or 1966--years that saw the minority party make huge gains. A lot more would need to happen.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Free For All Guv's Race in Wisconsin

Two term Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle (D) announced last week that he would not seek a third term, throwing wide open next year's race for the Badger State's top office (for a decent rundown see here). Doyle had been a consistent vote getter statewide, winning three terms as Attorney General and then two as Governor. Under normal circumstances, Doyle would have been virtually assured a third term (Wisconsin does not have term limits). However, with the worsening economy, Doyle's approval has cratered over the past year, with his numbers now hovering somewhere in the low 30's. With his announcement, several candidates have already announced, several more may be expected to jump in, and I'll venture that a few probably should.

Prior to this announcement, the two Republicans in the race were Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and former Wisconsin House member (1st District) Mark Neumann. Walker has been twice elected in Milwaukee County and was a candidate for the GOP governor's nomination last time around in 2006. However, midway through the race Walker dropped out (after some prodding by national GOP higher ups) to give then House member Mark Green (8th District) clear sailing to the party nod. Green went on to lose to Doyle handily (53%-45%) in a year Wisconsin moved solidly to the Democratic side (Green's House seat went blue to Rep. Steve Kagen). Neumann also has statewide ballot experience. After capturing the 1st District House seat in the 1994 GOP landslide, Neumann sought to take down Sen. Russ Feingold in 1998. Aided by Feingold's questionable campaign strategy (refusing national party money and abiding by the limits of the yet to pass McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill), Neumann almost scored an upset, losing by only 3 points. Both Walker and Neumann are fiscal and social conservatives. Of the two, Neumann is probably more to the extremes, especially because he hasn't been forced to govern and take pragmatic stances like Walker has as the head of Wisconsin's largest county.

On the Democratic side, things are just starting to shake out. First in the race is the current Lieutenant Governor, Barbara Lawton. While Lawton's first elected experience came with the number two spot under Doyle, she hails from a part of the state that is, in my mind, the most fascinating for Dems' chances--Green Bay and the upper Fox River Valley (see this post from last year's cycle).

The next Democrat that people are watching is 3rd District Congressman Ron Kind. The 3rd District is made up of the mostly rural western part of the state (see this older post for some background). The Blue Dog Kind has held the seat since replacing GOP moderate Steve Gunderson back in 1996. Given that the Democratic nominee will have to grapple with the state's economic downturn and no doubt have to demonstrate some fiscal bona fides, Kind is an intriguing potential candidate.

Third up, and yet to declare, is Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk. Falk has two things in her favor. First, she hails from the vote rich and most reliably Democratic part of the state--Madison. Dane County consistently has the state's highest turnout levels and, in a close primary or general, this could prove crucial. Second, she has run statewide before, losing to Doyle in the 2002 Democratic primary for governor. In a three way race, along with then Milwaukee congressman and now Mayor, Falk garnered 27% of the vote.

Which brings us to Barrett. Barrett has gotten a lot of unwanted attention, given the circumstances, over the past week, after being beaten outside the Wisconsin State Fair. Upon leaving with his family, Barrett came across a domestic disturbance and, in the process of calling the police and trying to separate the parties, ended up losing a few teeth, fracturing his hand, and requiring plastic surgery to close up some nasty cuts. Rachel Maddow profiled the episode the other day, speculating that this may gain Barrett some sympathy, and potentially votes, should he again seek the Governor's mansion. While Barrett hails from the largest city and county in the state, this may--ironically-work against him (and Walker too). Historically, Wisconsin voters have not elected their Governor from Milwaukee. One needs to go back to Civil War era elections to find the last time this happened. The big city / out state dynamic that I wrote about a while back has held quite well in Wisconsin.

One candidate that I would watch closely is 1st District Congressman Paul Ryan. While Ryan begged off the question of whether he was interested in the race, the clearly ambitious (many think he will run for the Senate soon) Ryan should, in my view, consider entering. The Republican candidate should, all things being equal, be at an advantage next year. While Ryan has risen quickly up the GOP ranks in the House--he now sits as the ranking member on the Budget Committee--his prospects of being a member of the majority party any time soon (and thus having any tangible policy influence) are dim given the size of the Democratic majority. Thus, for a wonkish, yet charismatic, politician like Ryan, the Governor's mansion would seem to be an attractive destination.

The wild card in all of this is how the Wisconsin political landscape will look 15 months from now. Should the economy improve the current GOP advantage could vaporize. While Wisconsin is always considered a classic swing state, recent elections have seen it move further to the Democratic side. A GOP presidential candidate hasn't won the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Democrats have won the past two governor's races and the past 7 Senate races. In the last two cycles the Democrats have captured both houses of the state legislature and have gained one U.S. House seat. Obama romped through Wisconsin, winning the state by 14 points. Thus, both parties have reason to be optimistic. The result will hopefully be (for political junkies at least) a multi-candidate Battle Royale.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

A Quick Note on the Sotomayor Confirmation

Judge Sonia Sotomayor was just confirmed by the Senate, 68-31. Nine Republicans voted yes. One thing I would note is that 4 of those 9 yea votes are from retiring members (Gregg, Martinez, Bond, and Voinovich). Early on the process I speculated on how things might shake out on the Republican side (turns out I was wrong about a lot).

What seems clear is that the partisan voting trend continues on these nominations. Because of their impending retirments, these four no longer had to worry about any repurcussions stemming from supporting Sotomayor. Its hard for the leadership to whip Senators into line behind the party position when those Senators are on the way out the door. Voinovich's comments last week about the state of the Republican party and its increasing "southern-ness" seems, in retrospect, to be an insight into his thinking. Perhaps the most interesting of the Republican yeas is Lamar Alexander (R-TN) whose comments in support of Sotomayor sought to defuse the polarization of these nomination fights. Having run for President himself, Alexander may, one might speculate, be sympathetic to the critique offered by his Ohio colleague--although one can't imagine the Tennessean voicing his agreement.

***UPDATE: Nate Silver provides a rundown of the GOP vote and provides the following helpful visual on states' Hispanic population and the ultimate vote of their GOP senators.