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.