Tag Archives: conservatism

What the Republican Nominee Says About the Party

The GOP coalition is increasingly useless at the presidential level.

Gerrymandering and residential segregation in the House of Representatives, depressed turnout in off-year elections, and the disproportionate influence of small, rural states in the Senate and the electoral college have largely hid this reality from view. The American political system is uniquely designed so that a party with very little popular support can effectively stymie the will of the majority at every turn and still remain electorally competitive long after they’ve become broadly disliked. But the story is different in presidential politics, where the socially conservative, middle- and upper-class, white and Christian coalition that delivered the White House to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush are no longer enough to bring Republicans a general election victory.

Examining the stark numbers is useful: The Republican nominee for president has lost the popular vote in 5 of the last 6 Presidential elections. The most recent Pew data show that 48 percent of Americans say they identify as Democrat or lean Democrat, compared with 39 percent on the Republican side. The 2016 Republican primary then, necessarily hinges on how the GOP candidates might be able to adjust to this reality.

There are three broad strategies that Republicans could conceivably follow, and two of them are plausible: shrink the electorate or broaden the base. The other — energizing the silent conservative majority — is absurd, but does have some adherents. Each of the Republican candidates are executing variations of one of these three strategies; who gets nominated will largely determine which way the Republican Party is headed.

Let’s address each of these strategies in ascending order of plausibility:

Strategy #1: The Silent Conservative Majority

The unserious candidates in the GOP primary all adhere to some version of the Silent Conservative Majority thesis. The core idea is that most Americans accept the conservative ideology, and would vote for a truly conservative candidate. The reason Republicans have lost the last two elections, according to this idea, is that the party sold out to moderates. Only a true conservative will bring out conservative voters and bring a victory. Ted Cruz, the leading proponent of this idea, puts it this way: “Today, roughly half of born-again Christians aren’t voting. They’re staying home. Imagine, instead, millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.” While Cruz is the leading proponent, the campaigns (or theoretical campaigns) of Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee all include some version of this thesis.

There are several main problems with this thesis. First, most Americans are less conservative than the Republican party. Very few aren’t voting because the Republican party isn’t conservative enoughI’ve noted numerous times that the non-voting population is significantly more liberal than the voting population. As the data below from Pew Research Center shows, non-voters are significantly less conservative than voters.

Non-voters tend to be younger, less white, less education and poorer than voters, all of which (with the possible exception of education) skew more liberal, not more conservative. Candidates espousing this thesis tend to frequently cite Ronald Reagan as the heyday of serious conservatism, and hearken back to him wistfully. But more recent political science research suggests that the Reagan White House maintained an extensive internal polling operation to ensure that he could maintain the appearance of a center while still pulling policy in a more conservative direction.

Candidates espousing the Silent Conservative Majority thesis will throw up a lot of dust and energize many very conservative voters, they may even garner some money and a few delegates, but none are serious candidates. They are running to: (1) make money and increase their profile; and (2) to ensure the GOP doesn’t move too far to the center to appeal to voters.

Strategy #2: Shrink The Electorate

The broad goal here is to go on the offensive: Rather than bringing in new voters, the Republican Party would seek to use its fundraising advantage and reduce the Democratic turnout advantage. This strategy involves: giving business and big money more influence, crushing unions and erecting barriers to voting. The most successful proponent of this strategy is Scott Walker, who has successfully deployed the strategy already in Wisconsin. As Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes, “Since they came to power in 2011, Walker and his party have not only changed the way the state is governed, but they have changed the political playing field. In a few big ways and lots of little ways, they have seemingly made it easier for Republicans and harder for Democrats to win elections.”

Walker has crushed a key liberal base, unions, and made it a centerpiece of his presidential run (e.g. by comparing union workers to ISIS). He has also pushed through a Voter ID law and cut early voting, while loosening rules for campaign finance. All of these laws will work to shift the playing field in favor of Republicans. I’ve documented extensively already how low turnout benefits the right. And unions are a key base of progressive support, so crushing them will similarly benefit conservatives.

However, the obvious problem with a strategy of suppressing the vote, aside from the constitutional problems it raises, is that it alienates voters of color who are targeted.

Strategy #3: Broaden The Base

The strategy here is to win enough Latino, Asian and Black voters that the decreasing share of older whites in the voting population doesn’t decrease Republican electoral chances. Indeed, this was George W. Bush’s strategy (he also appealed to social and business conservatives) and, had he been able to pass comprehensive immigration reform, Republicans would be in a much better position today.

While many on the left may feel that this strategy is unlikely to succeed, there are reasons to believe Republicans could indeed peel off some Latino or African-American votes from Democrats. I’ve previously noted, the work of political scientist Spencer Piston, who shows that lighter-skinned Latinos and Asian-Americans are more likely to support the Republicans.

As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie explains:

On party identification, the difference between the darkest- and lightest-skinned Latinos is the difference between a strong Democratic partisan and a relative independent. For the 2012 Senate races, however, darker-skinned Latinos were much more likely to vote Democratic than lighter-skinned Latinos, who split their votes between the two parties. The differences are less stark for Asians, but they’re still noteworthy: Light-skinned Asians were less likely to vote Democrat in the 2008 national elections, and more likely to identify as independent or Republican.

Piston says it’s “striking that across two different ethnic groups, two national datasets, and two different modes of measuring skin tone, lighter-skinned individuals are more likely than dark-skinned individuals to prefer Republicans.” He’s right, and it’s a testament to the role skin color (and racism) can play in social integration.

Further, recent Pew polling suggests that younger voters of color are slightly more open to the Republican Party.

The most prominent Republicans are implicitly endorsing this strategy, with both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio promoting their ability to speak Spanish and reach out to working class voters.

What Will Happen

Obviously, the winning candidate will try to deploy all three of these strategies to some extent. However, the strategies conflict with each other. Attempts to shrink the electorate will upset Latinos and Blacks, who will justifiably be angered by attempts to suppress their vote. On the other hand, most attempts to broaden the base, say with immigration reform, will anger the most conservative whites. The strategies above, however, offer a coherent way of thinking about elections that emphasizes strategy, rather than the vagaries of horserace politics. They also offer the key to understanding who will the nomination.

The best strategy above is to broaden the base. Shrinking the electorate has simply reached a point of diminishing returns. Democrats have a robust fundraising operation and a strong get-out-the-vote capacity. Broadening the base led to the only one popular vote win Republicans in two decades — when Bush captured the White House in 2004 with 40 percent of Latinos. (Claims that he had a higher share are incorrect). Republicans will work to broaden their support during Presidential elections while during midterm elections they will try to reduce turnout and mobilize partisans.

What does it all mean? Either Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio will be the likely nominee. Two factors point to Rubio being stronger. First, because Republicans will want to hit Hillary for being dynastic, a second Bush candidate is risky. (Even if Hillary’s history could also make Bush’s family name less of the deal-breaker it might otherwise be.) Second, Rubio has strong Tea Party ties that Bush lacks, meaning that he could expand the base without losing too many true conservatives. At this point, he offers Republicans the best chance at winning in 2016.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

New Evidence That The Rich Are More Conservative Than the Rest Of Us

It’s a long-running debate: Are rich people more conservative, and particularly more likely to be Republican? The answer is yes, and a large literature establishes this, but the debate still rages on, driven partially by the cognitive biases of elite commentators. In a recent study, Erik Peterson shed some light on the debate using a random event that could shift an individual’s political preferences: winning the lottery.

In his study, Erik Peterson examined how winning the lottery affected 1,900 registered voters. His work follows in the vein of recent research by Nattavudh Powdthavee and Andrew J. Oswald, who find that “[lottery] winners tend to switch towards support for a right-wing political party and to become less egalitarian. The larger the win, the more people tilt to the right.” Lottery winners were also more likely to express sympathy for the current distribution of income and wealth. Earlier work by Daniel Doherty, Alan S. Gerber and Donald P. Green suggests that lottery winners were more likely to express opposition to estate taxes and redistribution.

Unlike their work, Peterson eschews surveys, instead using data from the lottery winners’ voter files. In particular, he finds that lottery winners are more likely to become registered Republicans. The effect was modest for those who were registered before winning the lottery, but was more dramatic for those who had not been registered before. Thus: More money increases Republican identification.

As the data below (from the American National Elections Studies) suggest, the rich tend to be far more conservative than the average American and are far more likely to vote Republican. In a recent study, Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal find that between 1956 and 1996, “partisanship has become more stratified by income.” The ANES data also include conservative and liberal self-identification, and here again, those in the highest percentile are more conservative than others (21 percent of the poorest reported being conservative in 2008, compared to 59 percent in 2008).

The rich are also far more likely to favor cutting services and spending (on a seven-point scale) than increasing services.

If the rich tend to be more conservative, why do so many influential journalists — like for example The New York Times’ David Brooks — argue that they aren’t? Some of the answer is misinformation. Republicans are trying to shed their reputation as the party of the rich, so many seize on scant evidence – like the fact that some exit polls showed that those earning more than $200,000 skewed toward Obama in 2008 — to make the case that in fact, the rich are more liberal. But even if commentators are not motivated by politics, there are two other factors at work:

First, the rich do tend to be more socially liberal than the poor and middle class, but with an important caveat. In one study, Benjamin Page and Cari Lynn Hennessy use the General Social Survey to examine the views of the richest 4 percent of the country. They find that the top 4 percent are “much more socially liberal or libertarian, and more economically conservative, than those of the average American.” Further, they find that these views are distinct from the top third of the income distribution. Thus, on a comprehensive metric of partisanship, the wealthy will appear more centrist because of their views on social issues. However, Stephen Ansolabehere, Jonathan Rodden and James M. Snyder Jr. find that “economic policy preferences are more important than moral policy preferences in accounting for voting behavior and party identification.” When David Brooks or other journalists note the social liberalism of the rich as evidence that they are Democratic, they are ignoring the economic issues that drive votes.

It’s worth noting here also that this idea, that the social conservatism of the working class has led them to vote Republican, is incorrect. Another factor at work is how geography and race intersect deeply with partisanship. As Larry Bartels notes, “white working-class voters see themselves as closer to the Democratic Party on social issues like abortion and gender roles but closer to the Republican Party on economic issues.” Further, in his seminal book on the subject, “Rich State, Poor State,” Andrew Gelman finds that “higher-income people have been consistently more likely to vote Republican, especially since 1970.” However, he also finds that “Voters in richer states support the Democrats — even though, within any given state, richer voters tend to support the Republicans.”

Essentially: In poor red states, partisan views are dramatically polarized by income. (And race is a significant factor here.) In richer blue states, there is far less polarization, and income does less to predict views.

However, there’s a final part of this story: Even the rich who do sympathize with the Democratic party are different from the average Democratic voter. In a pioneering study, Page, Jason Seawright and Larry Bartels interviewed 83 high-wealth individuals. Demos has examined those findings in more depth elsewhere, but a key finding that is rarely discussed is that

about twice as many of our respondents considered themselves Republicans (58 percent) as considered themselves Democrats (27 percent)… on economic issues wealthy Democratic respondents tended to be more conservative than Democrats in the general population.

That is, rich Democrats still tend to have more economically conservative views. To test Page’s argument with another source, I ran some numbers using the American National Election Studies 2012 data. They have 2,000+ respondents who voted for Obama in 2012. I examined how opinions on spending differed among Democratic voters of different classes. I found that there are very little differences on issues like the environment and schools. However, on issues like Social Security and spending on the poor, wide gaps emerge. There are also differences in preferences about the size of government. This is only one source, but it lends support to the idea that there might be something distinct about wealthy opinion, at least as it relates to the role of government in the economy.

Given the extent to which our current political system is biased toward the rich, this finding should be worrying: Even rich Democrats aren’t strongly behind economic liberalism. One solution is to strengthen unions, which consistently advocate for policies that benefit the middle class and working class. Another solution is public financing, which could make the voices of ordinary Americans louder. The problem is, until the rich stop dominating the political system, one point of view will be heard more loudly in Congress.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

Conservatives hate conserving things

There was a time when “conservative” meant something. It meant respecting tradition, it meant opposing sweeping and rapid change to society, it meant fearing the rise of materialism, it meant emphasizing the importance of community, it meant strengthening families and it meant preserving the environment. Today, conservatism is a series of dogmas aimed at enriching the already fabulously wealthy and strengthening existing power structures. It also means opposing literally any reform Obama proposes. I think Obama should just start proposing everything Republicans cynically put forward as an “alternative” and force them to admit that they despise the very idea of governing.