Friday, March 27, 2009

Keystone Konundrum: Is Arlen Specter the New Joe Lieberman???

Its never to early to be thinking about 2010 and a bruising Senate primary in Pennsylvania has the potential of giving Democrats the magic 60 seats they need to end minority filibusters. Like in 2004, Arlen Specter finds himself challenged from his right flank by Pat Toomey, former House member of the 15th district and now president of the anti-tax, fiscally conservative think tank Club for Growth. While Specter clearly enjoys his position as the fulcrum of the current Senate—one of a small cadre of moderate Republicans who decide what legislation will go forward (Yes on stimulus; No on card check)—he has opened himself up once again to Toomey’s claim that Specter is out of step with Keystone State Republicans. While Specter might have no problem winning the general election next year, he may not get that far given current trends in the state and national GOP. If we look back to 2004 and move forward we can see some clear signs of danger for Specter.

In the 2004 contest, Specter narrowly held off Toomey, winning by just over 17,000 votes out of 1.4 million cast. I’ve built a spreadsheet of the county returns that can be viewed here. The map at left gives a visual of each candidate’s regional strengths. Specter counties are in blue; Toomey counties in red. For the most part, the primary results hewed to the conventional wisdom about Pennsylvania politics. Namely, western and central Pennsylvania tend to be more conservative than the southeastern part of the state, centered around Philadelphia. The Philly area is not only the more liberal part of the state but it is also Specter’s base going back to the beginning of his career as Philadelphia District Attorney. The one exception to this pattern is the area to the north of Philly in the Lehigh Valley. This was the area represented by Toomey during his four terms in the House so it’s not surprising that they supported him in his Senate race

More importantly, we need to look at the county by county vote in terms of overall votes. Obviously the electorate is spread out unevenly across the state so the above map only gets us so far in understanding what happened. In my data set I’ve created a variable called “County Share” which calculates the percentage of the overall vote produced by a particular county. This allows us to see the concentration of voters. One thing we find, for example, is that half of Pennsylvania’s primary vote came from just 10 counties, as shown in the map at left. As we see, nine of these are found in the southeastern and south central part of the state. Another way of stating this is that the largest concentration of voters came from Specter’s backyard. This can be further seen when looking at the “Specter Share” or “Toomey Share” variable. Here, I look at how much of each candidate’s vote came from each county. If both candidates were equally strong in each county, we’d see no difference in these numbers. The fact that we see variance confirms the fact that each candidate had different bases of support. Again, for Specter it’s the Philadelphia area that allowed him to squeak by. Montgomery County is a good example. As I wrote during last year’s primary season, Montgomery County is a large suburban county increasingly characterized by voters who are affluent, highly educated, socially liberal, yet fiscally moderate. For the pro-choice Specter, this was the place to run up the score. In 2004, he received 9.2% of his votes in Montgomery, compared to Toomey who received only 6.6% of his votes there. Specter also won significantly more of his votes in neighboring Delaware (7% vs. 5.7%), Bucks (6% vs. 4.9%), and Chester (5.1% vs. 4.2%) Counties as well as the city of Philadelphia (4.1% vs. 2.9%). Thus, without the cushion provided in this part of the state, Specter would not have survived. Also helping him fend off Toomey were endorsements by President Bush and the state’s other senator, the arch-conservative Rick Santorum.

So, going into next year’s contest might Specter simply try and repeat his 2004 performance? While in theory this might be desirable, changes over the past several years make following the old playbook precarious. If we look at more recent elections it becomes apparent that much of Specter’s base of support has been defecting from the Republican fold. It must be noted that Pennsylvania primaries are open only to registered partisans. Thus, Specter cannot rely on independents or Democratic voters to carry him to victory. Only registered Republicans will determine his fate, despite his recent attempts to get state leaders to change the primary rules. If we compare party registration figures for 2004 and 2008 we see problems for Specter. I’ve isolated those counties that provided Specter’s best performance to illustrate this point. As we can see, over the past four years Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks, and Chester Counties have shed over 124,000 registered Republicans. Democrats, meanwhile, have gained over 220,000 registrants. Whether these Republican losses have become independents or Democrats is irrelevant for the primary. The important fact is that they are now out of that electorate and out of Specter’s reach unless he can get them to re-register, a daunting process in the midst of a campaign.

To get a sense of how these changes in the Philly area have been changing the tenor of the state’s politics, its useful to compare the presidential vote in 2004 and 2008 (numbers are provided in the spreadsheet). As shown in the chart at left, Barack Obama performed significantly better than John Kerry in all five of these key counties. This is especially notable in the suburbs. Thus, whereas Kerry’s statewide victory was about 144,000 votes, Obama took the state by 620,000 votes. When Pennsylvania was called so quickly on election night it was because of the sizable shift to the left taken by this region.

To get a visual sense of how 2004 and 2008 played out on the presidential stage, the two maps at left illustrate some of the shifts. We see how Obama was able to expand the Democrats' perfromance in the southeastern part of the state while he suffered losses, relative to Kerry, in the more conservative parts south of Allegheny County (Pittsburgh). He also managed to extend the blue northward into the Lehigh Valley, the part of the state formerly represented by Toomey. Finally, he captured a scattering of counties in central PA, most notably Centre County which is the home of Penn St. University.

So, as Specter contemplates how to approach his looming primary fight, he’s confronted with the fact that the part of the state that has been his base of support for the past three plus decades is in the process of a steady move to the left. Those voters who, while moderate, were willing to stay registered as Republicans have been fleeing the GOP. A more conservative Republican electorate is clearly much more advantageous to Toomey. What Specter needs to hope for is that Republican voters see the virtue in having him in his current position—namely that of a dealmaker in the Senate. Toomey, while more in line with these voters' ideology, won’t have the institutional sway that Specter does. Is an influential, yet Republican-lite Specter more useful than a more pure, but marginalized Toomey? Specter will also hope that Toomey has lost the connection to the state that he had while representing it in Congress. The years spent running an outfit like the Club for Growth have necessarily removed him from the day to day workings of the state. He may thus be hampered in his attempt to swoop back in and knock off someone who has been courting and serving constituents for years.

Another option for Specter that has been discussed would be to run as an independent. Theoretically, he could decide to do this either before or after the primary. Given how much the landscape could change over the next year, its difficult to speculate on which option, if either, would be more desirable. A big unknown so far is what the Democratic field will look like. If Specter wants advice about how to go about this, though, he doesn’t need to go far--just a few steps across the Senate floor. Just three years ago, one of his colleagues went this route—Joe Lieberman. In many ways the Democratic Party’s version of Arlen Specter, Lieberman was challenged from his flank. Defeated in the Democratic primary by Ned Lamont, Lieberman regrouped and was elected as an independent. Thus, while we don't know how Senator Specter will ultimately play the hand he's been dealt, at this point there seem to be troubling signs ahead.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What Do We Know About White People???

I’ve been meaning to do some number crunching on the role of race in the presidential election, given how much discussion and coverage it received during the campaign. While I wrote about this subject a bunch prior to the election, I haven’t done much in depth analysis in the aftermath so let’s return to the topic. For this post I want to focus pretty much exclusively on the “white vote.” We know that among African American voters, not only was Barack Obama’s vote overwhelming (about 95%) but also that there wasn’t much variance across regions or states. While some of the states with high African American populations moved into the Democratic camp this year (North Carolina, Virginia) others did not (Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, etc.). It is this latter group of states that was the focus of the oft cited (and discussed here) “Schaller Effect”—the tendency of southern states with large black populations to have white electorates that vote overwhelmingly Republican. Essentially, Schaller argues, the politics of these states have become so defined by the issue of race over the decades that white voters, regardless of class, education, religion, etc., tilt Republican. With an African American on the ballot this year we got a chance to test this theory like never before.

To look at how white voters cast their ballots this year, and to determine whether any underlying patterns exist, I gathered the exit poll data compiled by CNN. The resulting spreadsheet is available here. Nationwide, Obama won 43% of the white vote. When we look at the vote preference based on race, we see that Obama won a majority of the white vote in 18 states, plus the District of Columbia. The map at left highlights those states and shows a pretty clear geographic clustering in the northeast, upper Midwest, and Pacific states with the exception of Colorado--a new battleground between the parties. If the electorate was 100% white he would have received 222 electoral votes, not enough to win the presidency. Thus, we look to those states where he lost the white vote (to varying degrees), but found a large enough minority electorate (black, Latino, Asian, etc.) to overcome his poorer showing among whites. This netted him an additional 10 states (FL, IN, MD, NV, NJ, NM, NC, OH, PA, VA) and provided him the solid electoral college victory that propelled him to the presidency. While there’s probably not anything overly surprising here—Democrats have for years had to rely on a multi-racial coalition to win the White House—looking at the raw numbers is instructive.

Conversely, if we look at the McCain vote among whites, we see a strong geographical dimension to his support. Nationwide, McCain received 55% of the white vote. The map left highlights those states where his white support was the highest--over 10% above his national average. Thus, in a cluster of mostly southern states the Republican nominee got 2/3 or more of the white vote.

Another way we might approach these numbers is to go to those states with the largest black populations relative to the state as a whole. Here we get to the phenomenon described by Schaller—how does Obama do among whites in the “blackest” states?? At left is a chart showing his performance among whites in the 15 states with the most significant black electorates. Overall, he won 8 of these states. However, with the exception of Washington, DC, Obama received a majority of the white vote in only 3 (Joe Biden’s Delaware, his home state of Illinois, and New York). He received more than his national average (43%) in only one additional state—Maryland. When we look at his performance in the Deep South states we seem to see evidence of the white backlash Schaller talked about with his extremely poor showing among whites in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, and South Carolina standing out. These states have large black populations but saw whites vote strongly Republican, a point noted in the map above as well.

What happens when we look at the inverse of these states—i.e. the “least black” ones?? Does McCain do as well as he did in the Deep South or did we see, conversely, Obama do really well? If McCain does equally well we might conclude that northern and southern whites aren’t really that different. If there is a geographical difference, maybe there is something to the hypothesis of racialized voting in the South. At left is a chart showing the 15 “least black” states in the country and Obama’s % of the white vote in each. Here his performance is much better. He won 8 of these states overall and in 7 of these 8 (with the exception of New Mexico) he not only got higher than his national average among whites, he won a majority of white voters. In fact, had some states in this group had a sizable enough minority population—Montana, the Dakotas—he may have added their electoral votes to his total as well. Clearly, it seems, there is a difference among white voters based on geography.

From this, can we conclude that white southerners voted against Obama because he was black?? Not necessarily. An alternative hypothesis is that these voters voted against Obama not because he’s black, but because he’s a Democrat. To get a better sense of what happened in November we need to go back further in time. Let’s look at 2004 when you had two white candidates on the ballot. If the results among white voters are quite similar to what we saw in 2008, our conclusions might need a bit more nuance. By looking at 2004 we can also get a sense of what changes might be taking place across the electorate and whether there is a geographic pattern. Thus, I also gathered the statewide CNN exit polls from the Bush/Kerry contest. What do we see?? Nationwide there wasn’t much difference between the support Obama and Kerry received among whites. In fact, Obama did better, getting 43% of the white vote to Kerry’s 41%.

Looking at the results state by state, we see that in all but 7 states, Obama did better among white voters than Kerry. In 8 states the performance of the two Democrats was identical. In the remaining 35 states, plus DC, Obama did better among whites than Kerry. If you look at the 18 states where Obama’s gains were the greatest (5% or more), he won 13. Four of these states voted Republican in 2004 (Indiana, Colorado, North Carolina, and Virginia). Thus, while the black and Hispanic vote was crucial in helping bring these states over to Obama’s side, we can’t ignore his increased performance among white voters as well.

Whereas Obama won 8 of the blackest states, Kerry only won 5. In these states, Kerry received below his national average among white voters (41%) in 8. Aided partially by increased support among African American voters (and also changes in turnout among whites and Republicans, plus greater support among Hispanics), Obama was able to outperform Kerry electorally. Narrowing further in on the white vote (and getting at the Schaller Effect) we see that in these states, Obama’s performance was worse than Kerry’s in four (Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana). Given that 2008 was a much better environment for Democrats than 2004 this is quite interesting. With a faltering economy, an unpopular president leaving office, and unprecedented national organization and fundraising, he did worse among some whites than did a candidate that, while white, was hardly a “good ‘ol boy.” Kerry, portrayed as elite, effete, “French,” and the epitome of northeastern liberalism outperformed Obama in much of the old Confederacy. Plus, given Bush’s cultural affinity with the South, his evangelical faith, and his political rearing in Texas, you’d have expected him to have high levels of support among southern whites. That McCain did better among some states’ white voters lends credence to Schaller’s argument, it seems.

So where does that leave us? With the low level of support Obama received among white voters in some states--relative to John Kerry and in an extremely favorable electoral environment--its hard to discount the assertion that race played some role in the vote. While some of these states have been heavily Republican, we saw Obama outperform Kerry among whites in equally Republican states in other parts of the country. We've also seen many of these states elect Democrats to other offices. The fact that white voters behaved differently in various parts of the country suggests that race is an issue that cuts across the electorate in a multitude of ways. Because race has been intertwined with politics in some places, and completely absent in others, we shouldn't make sweeping assertions about how important this cleavage is. Rather, we should approach the issue with nuance, an appreciation for historical context, and a willingness to explore multiple explanations for the outcomes we've observed. Given that we've had only one election to test our hypotheses, we should hold off on definitive statements until there's more data to parse.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Micropolitics in NYC: Don't Ignore the Trees for the Forest

For those of us who are fascinated by way ethnicity, religion, culture, race, income, and other variables affect political behavior, there's no place more compelling than New York City. Too often, I think, people gloss over the Big Apple's voting patterns because of its overwhelming Democratic tilt. In 2008, Barack Obama captured over 75% of the vote in 4 of the city's 5 boroughs (he got 47% in Staten Island). Underneath these numbers, though, are a myriad of stories. With so many voting blocs--some newly empowered, others in decline--New York politics is extremely fluid.

I recently came across this story from last summer in the NYT about the transformation in the city's electorate over the past several years. Whereas we normally think of "ethnic politics" being about the Irish, Italians, Jews, and other groups, the reality of today's Gotham is that Koreans, Russians, Pakistanis, Haitians, and dozens of other groups comprise the patchwork of voters that politicians must now cater to. The result, while perhaps more complicated for those running for office, is also empowering for these groups seeking to gain a foothold in America. As we celebrate St. Patrick's Day and Irish Americans' ascendance to our country's socio-economic and political heights, it is appropriate to appreciate how, historically, the ballot box has been a vehicle for groups' advancement. A similar story from October looks at how New York's Muslim community has experienced a political awakening.

Some of the most interesting scholarly work on New York's changing demography is being done by John Mollenkoph at the Center for Urban Research at CUNY's Graduate Center. Back in 2003, Dr. Mollenkoph co-authored this incredibly detailed study of the changes, and political implications, taking place in both New York and Los Angeles. It also provides some wonderful historical context for urban demographic change in other large cities. His findings challenge our conventional way of understanding urban politics. Whereas in past generations we saw a white/black divide and cleavage in big cities (and also Latino based in some places), the new urban landscape is much more balkanized and complex, requiring a more sophisticated approach to campaigning and governing.

To complicate things even further, we must remember that these ethnic or racial groups are not monolithic in their political behavior. Consider the maps at left, produced by the Center for Urban Research. They show the 2008 vote overall in the city as well as Barack Obama's performance vis a vis John Kerry's. While Obama did better than Kerry in most parts of the city, there are patches where McCain improved upon Bush's numbers. Given that Bush himself did relatively well in NYC--in the aftermath of 9-11--this further bump for the Republicans is quite interesting. The part of this map that immediately jumped out at me, and illustrates this need to dig deep into the micropolitics of the city, is southern Brooklyn. New York reports its election returns by Assembly district. Thus, Assembly Districts 45, 46, 47, 48, and 49 are of interest.

What caused these districts to be so different from the rest of the city in terms of its voting? One thing of note about this part of the city is that it has a large concentration of Orthodox Jews. Neighborhoods such as Midwood, Bensonhurst, and Borough Park have seen large numbers from this community settle in recent years. Likewise, Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay have seen an influx of Russians (many Jewish). The conservatism of the Orthodox Jewish electorate oftentimes gets overlooked given its relatively small size. Despite the discussion during the campaign season of Barack Obama's "Jewish problem," he ended up receiving 78% of the Jewish vote on election day--on par with the performance of John Kerry and Al Gore. Among Orthodox voters, however, there has always been a greater tendency to support Republican candidates given their positions on social and foreign policy issues. The Orthodox community is more likely to be pro-life, against gay marriage, and in favor of a hawkish defense and foreign policy than the Conservative and Reform movements. During the campaign the Jewish Press, which is a strong voice and based in this community, endorsed John McCain along these lines. Given this, then, we perhaps shouldn't be surprised with the voting results shown above.

While most of the data on demographic changes in the U.S. points toward a bright future for Democratic candidates--especially in regard to the Latino vote--its important to recognize that diversity entails tremendous complexity as well. Different voting blocs will bring with them different interests, agendas, and perspectives on policy. These agendas will compete with each other in an increasingly crowded environment, creating the potential for tension. While cities like New York and Los Angeles are on the front lines of this dynamic, it won't be long until its effects are felt much more broadly. Thus the need to dig deep and examine not just the forest, but the trees as well.

Friday, March 06, 2009

What the Wilderness Looks Like

For the past several posts, John and I have been spending a bit of time writing about the current state of the Conservative Movement. With the results of the past two elections showing a clear trend in the Democrats’ direction, aided not only by the failures of the Bush administration, but also by demographic and cultural shifts—see Teixeira and Judis—a lot of ink is now being spent debating how the Republicans, and conservatives more broadly, should respond. Do they move leftward and try to recapture some of the vast middle ceded to Obama (thus potentially alienating the conservative base) or do they retrench at the right flank and hope that events bring the electorate back in their direction? While many on the right argue that we are a “center-right” country by temperament, a misreading of the country’s pulse and preferences could spell disaster over the medium and long term. Hence, whether or not the right has a true leader—hence the current kerfuffle about Rush Limbaugh’s place in the conservative pantheon—they seem to be in wilderness mode.
While two election cycles don’t necessarily mean the country is on an irreversible move leftward, I thought I’d look a bit at the last time the country was moving strongly in one direction. Here, however, the move was to the right. If what is happening now is of the same magnitude and duration, Republicans are in for a long period of soul-searching and electoral defeat. My decision to look at where conservatives find themselves was spurred by today’s announcement that Al From, the founder and longtime head of the Democratic Leadership Council, is stepping down as head of the organization. The DLC was created in the midst of the Democrats’ last long period of exile. The goal of the organization, simply stated, was to make the Democrats relevant again. As liberalism reached its nadir in the 1970’s & 1980’s following the collapse of the Great Society, the “big government” solution to policy problems was thrown into disrepute. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were able to capitalize on the excesses of the 1960’s and America’s fear and loathing of rising crime, growing welfare dependency, and affirmative action and bring about a re-ordering of the American polity. The result?? Republicans won 5 of the 6 presidential elections between 1968 and 1988.

To get a sense of just how bad the Democrats’ period of exile was, consider the five elections between 1972 and 1988. With the exception of Jimmy Carter’s Watergate-aided win in 1976, the Republicans not only won all of these contests but won them handily. Here is the Electoral College vote in each of the contests. Overall, Republicans won 2200 electoral votes to the Democrats’ 487—82% of the total. Note how in 3 of these elections (’72, ’80, and ’84) Republicans won more electoral votes in a single contest than the Democrats won in total over all 5!!! While the Democrats managed to maintain majorities in the House and Senate (with the exception of ’81-’87) the party’s national standing was in tatters. It had no dominant spokesperson and no compelling narrative to explain how it would fix the country’s ills beyond simply rehashing liberal dogma. The question then confronting the Democrats, like the dilemma of the Republicans now, was what to do.
When the DLC was founded in 1985 the Democrats were perhaps at their lowest point nationally. In order to regain the party’s footing, the organization called for an end to the traditional “liberal” approach to policy. Rather, building on a cadre of centrist governors and members of Congress—Bill Clinton, Sam Nunn, Joe Lieberman, John Breaux, and Dave McCurdy among others—it proposed solutions that were more market based, pragmatic, and fiscally responsible. With Clinton’s election in 1992 the movement reached its ascendancy and policies such as NAFTA, welfare reform, a balanced budget, and the earned income tax credit helped reposition the Democrats as a party once again competent and identified with economic growth and prosperity.
While Bill Clinton brought the Democrats victories at the ballot box in 1992 and 1996, his centrism brought criticism from his left. Many members of Congress, still ensconced in the old liberalism (now rebranded “progressivism”) were critical of his stands on trade, welfare reform, and health care. While these intra-party squabbles were not totally responsible for the Republicans’ capture of Congress in 1994, one can argue that Clinton was more successful in dealing with the likes of Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole than he was in corralling the Democratic base. Whichever side one took in this fight for the heart of the Democratic Party, one can’t deny the fact that the debate revitalized the party and made it think hard about policy. Despite George Bush’s capture of the White House, the elections of 2000 and 2004 were fought much more closely than those of the 1970’s and ‘80’s. The Republican’s Electoral Vote margin over those two contests was a mere 40 EVs and Bush never captured 51% of the popular vote. Democrats regained their congressional losses of the mid 90’s and laid the groundwork for what we saw transpire last year.
So what can the right learn from the Democrats’ period in the wilderness?? One lesson that can be drawn is that a party needs to grapple honestly with its past excesses. Those on the left who were being honest with themselves realized that there was a reason that voters moved so definitively to the right. While events such as last weekend’s CPAC gathering isn’t going to cater to this type of reflection among today’s conservatives, other more sober venues must. What makes this introspection complicated for many on the right, though, is that they are convinced that what was repudiated in 2006 and 2008 was not conservatism, but Bush-ism. For them, Bush failed not because he was too conservative (or because conservatism more broadly was being rejected) but rather because he was too liberal. With exploding deficits and long term expansions and commitments to Medicare and other programs, “compassionate conservatism” was simply liberalism by another name. Among many congressional Republicans, the decision to now vote against spending increases—despite consistently voting for them during Bush’s reign—signals an attempt to recapture the mantle of fiscal responsibility.

Another lesson for conservatives to ponder is the need for policy debate, intra-party discussion, and diverse solutions. While not everyone on the left shared the DLC’s approach to issues, it not only helped to stop the party’s decline (perhaps it couldn’t sink any lower) but allowed it to regain a foothold in certain parts of the country where the damage of the 1970’s and 80’s was most severe—i.e. the south. Not only was the DLC a centrist organization, it was also heavily southern flavored. Whereas New Deal liberalism was strongest in the urban north, southern Democrats have always been a different breed. By giving Democrats another model, and winning elections because of it, the DLC was able to help the party begin to grow again. One can’t help but look at today’s Blue Dogs and their contribution to the Democrats’ new and expanding majority in Congress as the progeny of what Clinton and others began. If the right wants to regain not only relevancy but power, it seems obvious that they must realize that parties—should they hope to be successful nationally and over the long term—are at root coalitions. The creation and maintenance of these coalitions requires a degree of pragmatism and leadership that seems lacking on the right. It also requires a belief that many of those not currently in the coalition should be allowed under the tent. This also seems to be a point of contention among many conservatives. If the right fails to come to these realizations, they may be closer to the beginning of their time in the wilderness than to the end.