Monday, November 25, 2013

Low Turnout Brings 2014 Hope to... Democrats?

It's not a good time to be a politician; they're hated more than Brussels sprouts at the Thanksgiving table. The troubled launch of Obamacare, of course, is to blame for the latest crisis of confidence—one that has brought Democrats down to the depths of public opinion that Republicans were already wallowing in post-shutdown. As a result, many a pundit is taking an I-told-you-so attitude. Everyone else is now seeing what they saw earlier: that it is unlikely Democrats can make gains in the 2014 election.

I really don't yet know what Democrats will do in 2014, but it's also not quite right to say voters are casting equal blame across both parties. Take a look at this Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll from last week:
"Just 38 percent of those polled said they approved of Obama's job performance, with 55 percent disapproving. ... Americans are even more dubious about Congress. Just 9 percent of those polled (down from 21 percent last November) approved of its performance. Fully 84 percent disapproved."
It tells what is by now a familiar story: Obama is unpopular, but Congress is even more unpopular. That doesn't necessarily speak well for Democrats. (Here we're treating Obama popularity as a proxy for Democrats and congressional popularity as a proxy for Republicans.) But here's something very interesting about the crosstabs of the poll:
"Almost nine-in-10 of those who disapproved of Obama's performance also gave Congress a thumbs-down; 56 percent of those who disapproved of Congress also flunked Obama."
A lot of people actually disapprove of both—so maybe Obama disapproval isn't a good proxy for Republicans, and congressional disapproval isn't a good proxy for Democrats. There is a sizable bloc of "plague on both your houses" voters—which probably isn't a surprise.

But there's an equally sizable bloc on the other side that continues to believe in government (or at least half of it). Just as many people still approve of exactly one party as hate them both. And, among this group, the people who approve of Obama but disapprove of Congress (i.e., Democrats) are far more numerous. Here's the breakdown of the poll's entire sample by this matrix we've concocted:

Disapprove of both Obama and Congress: 47%
Approve of Congress, disapprove of Obama (Republicans): 8%
Approve of Obama, disapprove of Congress (Democrats): 37%
Approve of both Obama and Congress: 1% (the poor souls)

(Note that it doesn't add up to 100%; the rest weren't sure what to think of our political morass.)

This is pretty remarkable. Now, obviously, there aren't four times as many Democrats as Republicans; plenty of Republicans (i.e., Tea Partiers) are in the "plague on both your houses" group. But most Democrats aren't disillusioned at all; the 37% in the sample above almost exactly matches the 38% of nationwide voters who identified as Democrats in the exit polls of last year's election.

So what does this mean for 2014? I would posit that the 47% who are so cynical may simply not show up to vote at all. Why show up to vote in an election that you don't think will make a difference? The midterm is already a low-turnout environment anyway. If only people who believe in government, with a stake in one of the sides, show up in 2014, the electorate will look like this (removing the 47% from the sample):

Approve of Congress, disapprove of Obama (Republicans): 17%
Approve of Obama, disapprove of Congress (Democrats): 80%
Approve of both Obama and Congress: 2%

Now, obviously it won't break down that way; 80% Democrats is an impossible number. Some of the disenchanted 47% will certainly show up, and their unpredictability is what's casting the 2014 election into such uncertainty. But among voters who aren't likely to throw up their hands and forsake the whole system, Democrats dominate. That built-in advantage is, if nothing else, better than the alternative heading into 2014.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Are We Really a Center-Right Country?

Some random thoughts on a Saturday morning...

A few weeks ago, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush told a dinner audience, "We're a center-right country." Bush was articulating a theme that he has pushed for several months now and that will probably be the message of his 2016 presidential campaign, if he undertakes one. (I'm skeptical.) It's a fairly uncontroversial statement, since it has been taken as conventional wisdom for some time now that the United States is indeed "center-right." But I'm not so sure.

There's some truth to it, of course. Polls show that Americans dislike higher taxes and believe the Second Amendment gives people the right to bear arms. They think the high budget deficit is a problem, and they want government spending cut back (at least in the abstract).

But there's just as much evidence in the other direction—some of it quite surprising. Most Americans believe women have the right to get an abortion. All the evidence suggests that a majority of the country now supports the right of same-sex couples to marry. And a recent poll found that 58% believe marijuana should be legalized.

How to square these inconsistencies? Well, I think it's obvious that America's not a center-right country, but rather a libertarian-leaning country. All of the general attitudes described above lean in the direction of individual liberties and rights; they're actually not inconsistent at all.

The notion that we're actually a libertarian-leaning nation also fits with common sense. The "center-right" theory stems largely from a comparison with ultra-liberal Europe. But the comparison might better be between that continent's nanny states and watchful eyes and America's more individualist spirit. That was what set Americans apart from the very beginning: an emphasis on natural-born rights and the manifest-destiny ideals of building a life for yourself with just your own two hands.

And we might be becoming even more libertarian, with the attitudes of younger voters and my Millennial generation skewing strongly in this direction. Although I hate to conclude on such a trite point, the fact that America is really a libertarian nation may be why so many people feel like the two-party system is failing the country. We may increasingly be becoming a nation that isn't best described on a traditional left-right spectrum. The parties have done a good job historically of adapting to the adjusting attitudes among the American people, and I think they will adapt again if this really is the case. But in the meantime, when you hear politicians debating over whether we are a "center-right" or "center-left" country, I think it may be fair to wonder whether they are missing the point—and thus epitomizing the current disconnect between Washington and the 50 states.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Your Guide to Election Night 2013

Even though it's an odd year, this coming Tuesday, November 5, is Election Day in many states. You are probably familiar with the bigger races—New Jersey and Virginia governor, anyone?—but there's actually a lot more going on to capture a political junkie's attention. Personally, I'll be watching the Boston mayoral race, the Colorado secession movement, and the Washington GMO ballot measure very closely.

To help guide those who haven't been following a lot of the more local campaigns but are interested in following them on election night, I've created this viewer's guide for Tuesday. Sorted by poll-closing times (all times Eastern), it's a state-by-state rundown of what's on the ballot in 2013.

7pm ET

Florida: Municipal elections, including Miami mayor, St. Petersburg mayor, and local ballot measures in Hialeah and Key West.
Georgia: Primary special elections in SD-14, HD-104, and HD-127; municipal elections, including mayor of Atlanta.
South Carolina: Municipal elections in Mt. Pleasant, Spartanburg, and Myrtle Beach.
Virginia: A well-publicized governor's election, but also close lieutenant governor and attorney general races; the entire House of Delegates is also up for grabs.

7:30pm ET

North Carolina: Municipal elections, including a bitter partisan race for Charlotte mayor.
Ohio: Municipal elections, including mayoral races in Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Dayton as well as a school-financing measure in Columbus.

8pm ET

Alabama: The Republican primary runoff in the AL-01 special election.
Connecticut: Municipal elections, including mayor of New Haven.
Maine: Five bond issues; municipal elections in Lewiston.
Maryland: Municipal elections in Annapolis, Bowie, Frederick, Gaithersburg, Rockville, Salisbury, and more.
Massachusetts: Municipal elections, including a close Boston mayoral race; a special election in the Second Hampden and Hampshire Senate District.
Michigan: Municipal elections, including Detroit mayor, an open position of questionable power right now; a special election in HD-49.
Mississippi: Special primary elections in HD-05, HD-55, and HD-110.
Missouri: Scattered local ballot measures.
New Hampshire: Municipal elections, including the race for mayor of Manchester, the state's largest city; a special election in Hillsborough County House District 35.
New Jersey: The night's second-highest-profile gubernatorial election; all 40 State Senate seats; all 80 General Assembly seats; a referendum (Question 1) to dedicate assessments on wages to employee benefits; a referendum (Question 2) on raising the minimum wage to $8.25 per hour; some municipal elections.
Pennsylvania: Municipal elections, including an open-seat mayoral race in Pittsburgh.
Rhode Island: Municipal elections in Woonsocket and Central Falls.
Tennessee: Municipal elections in Humboldt, Knoxville, and Selmer.

9pm ET

Arizona: Municipal elections, including mayorals in Prescott and Yuma.
Colorado: Amendment 66, which would raise taxes $950 million to fund education; Proposition AA, which would institute a 25% tax on recreational marijuana; a nonbinding referendum in 11 counties to secede from Colorado; various municipal elections, including fracking bans in Boulder, Broomfield, Fort Collins, and Lafayette.
Minnesota: Municipal elections, including an open Minneapolis mayor's race that has drawn 35 candidates.
New Mexico: Municipal elections, including in Las Cruces.
New York: Six ballot measures, including Proposal 1 (to authorize new casinos) and Proposal 6 (to increase the judicial retirement age); municipal elections, including New York City mayor; county elections, including closely watched races for county executive in Nassau and Westchester; special legislative elections in AD-02, AD-53, and AD-86.
Texas: Nine ballot questions, including Proposition 6, on water projects; various municipal elections, including the preliminary round of the Houston mayoral and a local referendum on the fate of the Astrodome; a special primary election in HD-50.
Wyoming: Local ballot initiatives in Hot Springs, Laramie, and Sheridan Counties.

10pm ET

Idaho: Municipal elections, including Nampa mayor.
Iowa: Municipal elections, including a local ballot measure in Coralville that has drawn big outside spending.
Montana: Municipal elections, including Billings mayor.
Utah: Municipal elections, including West Valley City mayor and a Jordan School District bond measure.

11pm ET

California: Municipal elections, including the San Bernardino mayor's race and a gun-control ballot measure in Sunnyvale.
Oregon: Local ballot measures, including a Multnomah County bond issue.
Washington: I-517, which would make it easier to qualify ballot measures; I-522, which would mandate the labeling of genetically modified foods; five nonbinding "advisory questions"; municipal elections, including an historic race for Seattle mayor and a minimum-wage ballot measure in SeaTac; special legislative elections in SD-07, SD-08, and SD-26; county elections, including the Whatcom County Council, a priority for national environmental groups.

Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter!