What when the tide goes out?

by Henry on November 8, 2006

Yesterday gave me a warm glow of happiness that I haven’t gotten from election results in a long while (not that I’m enthusiastic about some aspects of the Democratic party, but they’re vastly superior to the other shower on most things that I care about). Even so, it seems to me to be less a decisive victory than an important first step. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading Michael McDonald and John Samples’ edited volume, _The Marketplace of Democracy: Electoral Competition and American Politics_ ( Powells link to be supplied, “Amazon”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/redirect.html?ie=UTF8&location=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.amazon.com%2FMarketplace-Democracy-Electoral-Competition-American%2Fdp%2F0815755791%2Fsr%3D8-1%2Fqid%3D1163010427%3Fie%3DUTF8%26s%3Dbooks&tag=henryfarrell-20&linkCode=ur2&camp=1789&creative=9325 )which is the most accessible and useful discussion of the increasing lack of competition in US electoral politics that I’ve come across, describing not only House and Senate races, but also primaries, state legislatures and so on. On first glance, yesterday’s victory looks like a refutation of claims that American politics is no longer competitive; we’re seeing what looks like a Democratic electoral blowout. But only at first glance. Gary Jacobson’s chapter describes the forces limiting electoral competition in the House and Senate. He argues that the importance of both gerrymandering and spending have been exaggerated. What best explains observed outcomes is partisan balance within Congressional districts (and to a lesser extent, states for the Senate). Congressional districts that highly favor one party in the Presidential election are far less likely to elect a candidate from the other party to Congress than in the past. Congressional districts (and, to a lesser extent, states) that favour Republican presidential candidates are _especially_ likely to reproduce this bias. This has given Republicans a key competitive advantage; Democrats’ ability to win Republican-leaning seats “has dropped dramatically since the 1980s.”

What does this suggest? If Jacobson is right, we’ve seen a Democratic tidal wave, but we can’t be at all sure that we’ve seen any underlying structural changes. Many of the Democratic gains are likely to be reversed again when the Republicans start to do better, _unless_ the Democrats cement them by reshaping the partisan balance within these districts, so that they start to favor Democrats systematically, not just when the voters want to throw the bums out. In Jacobson’s words:

A pro-Democratic national tide would, by definition, shake up partisan habits, at least temporarily, counteracting the Republicans’ structural advantage. But absent major shifts in stable party loyalties that lighten the deepening shades of red and blue in so many districts, after the tide ebbed the competitive environment would likely revert to what it had been since 1994

In other words, unless the Democrats can bring through a secular shift in party allegiances in the districts and states that they’ve won, they’re going to be left high and dry when the tide goes out again. How do you bring about this kind of shift? It seems to me that you do it by constructing a vigorous populism which speaks to the economic interests of voters in Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere, while scooping up soft libertarians in the Rocky Mountain states who are disgusted with conservative hegemony. And there are pretty clear signs that some Democrats get this. But if this is going to happen, it’ll be no thanks to the DC punditocracy, or to senior Democrats such as Rahm Emanuel whose main concern is to shove Republicans away from the K Street feeding-trough so that they can get their own snouts stuck into the swill. This, it seems to me is going to be the defining battle among Democrats over the next couple of months. Are they going to try to create an agenda that can reshape politics in their favour in the long term? Or are they going to revert to a Democratic-tinged version of business as usual?

(see further “Rick Perlstein”:http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=w061106&s=perlstein110806 and “Ezra Klein”:http://www.prospect.org/weblog/2006/11/post_1982.html#014434 )

{ 39 comments }

1

Steve LaBonne 11.08.06 at 1:38 pm

Even so, it seems to me to be less a decisive victory than an important first step

It’s not even a first step unless there are going to be more steps. As long as the Clinton mafia is running the show, I wouldn’t bet a wooden nickle on that. Snouts and troughs will be the order of the day.

2

Matt Kuzma 11.08.06 at 2:06 pm

You’re absolutely right. In order to actually accomplish something real, the Democrats need to develop a serious agenda. People, believe it or not, follow ideas and leadership more than party lines.

3

Barry 11.08.06 at 2:34 pm

Steve, please sod off. It’s a Democratic victory; us Democrats get to enjoy it.

4

David 11.08.06 at 2:39 pm

“Democrats’ ability to win Republican-leaning seats ‘has dropped dramatically since the 1980s.'” Well, yes–but in the 1980s and earlier that was due primarily to the fact that a large proportion of such districts were in the South, and elected moderate-to-conservative Democrats to Congress while voting Republican for President. 1992 and especially 1994 cleaned those anomalies out. But the Dixiecrats were basically a separate, second conservative party tucked inside the Democrats; their ability to win wasn’t owing to the greater competitiveness of those districts in the good ol’ days, but to the fact that they looked just like Republicans but retained the old, comforting party label. By the 1990s the remaining yellow-dog Democrats were too few in number for that to matter.

5

abb1 11.08.06 at 2:45 pm

People are not pro-Republican or pro-Democrat, they are not pro-anything, they are anti.

The Republicans are better at demonizing, and that’s all there is to it, the long and the short of it.

To win, all the Democrats need to do is to demonize them right back. They have some good scripts: the Republicans want to starve your grandma, they hate women, they are racists, but it’s not nearly as good as accusations of killing millions of innocent babies, taking your hard-earned money to give to riff-raff, converting your children to homosexuality.

See, hating women is not such a big deal – who doesn’t? Once in a while, I mean. The Democrats badly need better, stronger slur. The Daisy Girl ad was a stroke of genius, this is how the game has to be played.

6

Steve LaBonne 11.08.06 at 2:50 pm

barry, I AM a Democrat. It’s Rahm Emanuel whose Democrat-ness I have doubts about. He’s already out there mendaciously spinning this as a victory for his Republican-lite brigade.

7

radek 11.08.06 at 2:50 pm

Congratulations guys. Now don’t screw it up in the next two years and you might get the White House.
Probably should read this:

http://www.reason.com/news/show/116578.html

8

Russell Arben Fox 11.08.06 at 3:02 pm

In other words, unless the Democrats can bring through a secular shift in party allegiances in the districts and states that they’ve won, they’re going to be left high and dry when the tide goes out again. How do you bring about this kind of shift? It seems to me that you do it by constructing a vigorous populism which speaks to the economic interests of voters in Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere, while scooping up soft libertarians in the Rocky Mountain states who are disgusted with conservative hegemony.

Yes, Henry, you could do that, and it might work, though it doesn’t seem like a particularly coherent coalitional package to me. (Economic nationalism and soft libertarianism? Er, right.) I completely agree with your first step, but why not think differently about the second? The already semi- (and sometimes wholly) populist, religious, and mostly rural “homelander” population, while comparatively small, is still larger than the “soft libertarians” of the Rocky Mountain states. (After all, which ones are you talking about? The ones in big cities and inner suburbs? They’re already tending Democratic, and it’s still not quite enough to build a majority large enough to make the structural changes you’re talking about? Or are you talking about the ones in the exurbs and small towns? Problem: there aren’t any there.) I’m not reading from Rahm Emanuel’s playbook here; I’m not peddling a “conservative Democrats are the future” line. The rural Democrats I’m talking about are going to remain a minority, definitely. But if you’re talking about building coalitions strong enough to really undo some of the last 25 years, ought one think about the relative size of the groups you’re going to try to make a case to?

More here.

9

Steve LaBonne 11.08.06 at 3:06 pm

You mean rural Democrats like Jon Tester, who is an economic populist and openly called for repeal of the Patriot Act? I think they fit into Hentry’s coalition very nicely, thank you.

10

Steve LaBonne 11.08.06 at 3:07 pm

“Henry’s”, sorry.

11

Bernard Yomtov 11.08.06 at 3:26 pm

if this is going to happen, it’ll be no thanks to … Rahm Emanuel whose main concern is to shove Republicans away from the K Street feeding-trough so that they can get their own snouts stuck into the swill.

Gee. Could you at least give Emmanuel a light congratulatory pat on the back before you start pushing him out of the way?

The guy was chair of the DCCC, and delivered the goods. How about some credit?

12

Martin James 11.08.06 at 3:31 pm

It seems to me that the biggest winner in the elections was Joe Liberman.

He’s the most free to decide who controls the Senate.

You gotta luv the USA where the same day the Democrats win in landslide the governor who vetoed single payor healthcare for CA won, anti-immigration and anti-gay provisions passed, yet anti-abortion provisions lost in SD.

The biggest wins for the Dems seems to be that the Reps are dead in the (formerly)industrial midwest.

13

Russell Arben Fox 11.08.06 at 3:37 pm

Steve,

You mean rural Democrats like Jon Tester, who is an economic populist and openly called for repeal of the Patriot Act?

Let’s see, Tester: organic farmer, pro-gun, met his wife at church, “faith and family and hard work”…yeah, I think I could claim him for my suggested faction in an emerging Democratic coalition at least as well as, or better, than the libertarians could.

14

blah 11.08.06 at 3:43 pm

I might be dense, but I don’t grasp the distinction between “gerrymandering” and “partisan balance within Congressional districts.” I would think that the districts have particular partisan balances largely because they have been gerrymandered that way. You really cannot separate the makeup of districts from the fact that it is a political process that determines who is going to fall within a district.

15

blah 11.08.06 at 3:49 pm

As far as the Democrats’ short term agenda, how about if it commits itself to being the party of responsibility, integrity, and pragmatism.

At bottom, I think we will find that the Democrats’ success last night was due largely to the perception that Republicans were corrupt, ideological, and simply out of touch.

The Democrats should build on the opportunity this has presented. Ideologically, the Democratic Party is probably not coherent enough to come out with some great bold aggressive agenda, other than cleaning up the messes left by the Republicans.

16

Steve LaBonne 11.08.06 at 3:51 pm

The guy was chair of the DCCC, and delivered the goods. How about some credit?

I call bullshit.

17

c .l. ball 11.08.06 at 3:56 pm

What’s the matter with VA & MD? Has anyone taken a gander at vote share by family income in the exit polls for these states?

Webb and Cardin have monotonic declines in vote share as income rises up to the $75-100k range. But then their vote share _rises_ as income rises. They get half the $100-150k share, 56% of the $150-200k share, and 55% of the $200k+.

This is the oppositie of McCaskill and Kerry in 2004, who have monotonic or near monotonic declines as income rises. Menendez and Casey have more erratic patterns and there is not enough data on Tester beyond 100K.

Is there a new political economy of liberalism brewing?

18

Steve LaBonne 11.08.06 at 3:58 pm

Are we actually disagreeing, Russell? He’s all the things both of us described, including a pretty strong libertarian (the pro-gun stance is part of that, the anti-Patriot Act stance just as much so). But the libertarianism is genuinely with regard to personal liberty- not the bullshit Megan McArdle sort of right-wingery disguised as “libertarianism”. Tester offers no free pass for Big Government to look under our beds for scary terrorists, AND no free pass for big business to enact its agenda under the flag of “economic liberty”. I can live with all of that, very happily in fact.

19

Bernard Yomtov 11.08.06 at 5:00 pm

OK, Steve. Have it your way. Emmanuel’s a big loser and the Democrats would have won at least 400 seats if someone else, like Howie Klein, had been running things. Right.

No doubt Emmanuel made mistakes, but so what? That’s unavoidable. And not every loss was a winnable race. Perlstein starts by citing a couple of Kentucky districts, but makes no good argument that different candidates would have won.

So, I repeat, let’s give the guy some credit, second-guessers notwithstanding.

20

Sebastian holsclaw 11.08.06 at 6:12 pm

He argues that the importance of both gerrymandering and spending have been exaggerated. What best explains observed outcomes is partisan balance within Congressional districts (and to a lesser extent, states for the Senate). Congressional districts that highly favor one party in the Presidential election are far less likely to elect a candidate from the other party to Congress than in the past.

This is a strange formulation. Unless I’m misunderstanding, “partisan balance” is descriptive, while things like “gerrymandering” attempt to chart the process by which you end up with the state of what is described as “partisan balance”. The purpose of gerrymandering is to force a particular partisan balance among the districts to favor your party. Gerrymandering isn’t the only thing that changes partisan balance, but it is one of the things that many people think of as an bad or unfair way of changing partisan balance. As such it gets more attention than “people like living near people who think like them” because the latter idea isn’t considered meddling with the balance.

21

luci 11.08.06 at 6:31 pm

“I might be dense, but I don’t grasp the distinction between “gerrymandering” and “partisan balance within Congressional districts.””

I was confused by that too at first. But I’m guessing by “partisan” he’s saying that individuals are more rigid in their voting behavior, less likely to cross party lines. So, it’s less the way the disctict lines are drawn geographically, but changes in the people within those districts. Holding the disctrict lines constant, the voters themselves become more partisan.

22

blah 11.08.06 at 6:54 pm

I would also like to dispute the implication that all or most of the Dems’ gains were the result of disatisfaction with Republican incumbents and that the voters will likely return to the Repubs once they provide better candidates.

I don’t think you can make this generalization on the facts. This seems true for some of the pickups (the three Indiana seats, for instance) but not for others. The Dem pickups in NH and NY, for instance, plausibly appear to be a matter of voter realignment with the Democratic party in relatively more liberal districts. For these districts, the shift has already occurred and we are witnessing the consequences.

23

blah 11.08.06 at 7:07 pm

Supporting my latter point, I think you need to pay attention to state races as well to see which way districts are trending. In NH, for instance, there was a massive pickup for Dems in the legislature. Places like Colorado and Montana have also recently seen Dems takeover the legislatures in what used to be traditionally conservative states. I don’t think you can simply attribute these shifts to the quality of the candidates. In other words, there are structural changes in some places. Not everywhere, but in at least some jurisdictions.

24

John Quiggin 11.08.06 at 8:15 pm

As far as realignment is concerned, the failure of the Dems to gain much ground in the South is notable. My guess is that the conversion of Dixiecrats to Republicans is still going on, and counteracted the swing.

Also, as others have noted, the parties have now made a more or less complete switch of the support bases they had at the end of the Civil War, with a Solid South facing an equally solid Northeast.

25

Nicholas Weininger 11.08.06 at 8:46 pm

I grew up in one of the NY districts (20) that the Dems picked up; as far back as I remember it’d always been a safe Republican seat. I think what happened was that it got Bobo-ized by people who moved up from NYC. Towns that used to be down-and-out rural backwaters are now full of chic antique shops and performance spaces and the like. You can get extremely good Northern Italian food of the sort that used to be unavailable north of the city limits and west of the Massachusetts line.

All of which makes me completely unsurprised to see the “paradoxical” breakdown of Webb-Allen voting by household income. Slate had a bunch of articles about this before the election; they called the phenomenon “Bushenfreude” which I think is one of the stupidest coinages ever, but they were right.

It also makes me wonder if we’ll see serious “culture war” type stuff flare up soon at the national level the way it’s been doing in the states. The high-income anti-Bush vote may be partly about the war but it’s also partly about bohemian social liberalism.

26

Thompsaj 11.09.06 at 12:26 am

I agree with Dr. Quiggin, however, i believe that racial politics are still very influential in the south, and there has been ambiguity since the voting rights act about how black voters should be represented. In some cases, black democratic leaders have made deals with white republicans to draw districts which essentially guarantee a black democrat and two or three white republicans, eliminating the chance of a moderate white democrat. This phenomenon speaks to Dr. Farrell’s point about the partisan structure of districting, and perhaps clarifies the distinction between that and gerrymandering.

Also, regarding the south, the traditional republican constituency of the northeastern and midwestern urban middle and upper classes was late in coming to the south, and, again, was clouded by race up to 1965 and through to the present.

27

Ragout 11.09.06 at 2:35 am

I’m with blah: we’re seeing a voter realignment in favor of the Dems, with moderate Republicans in the Northeast and Midwest being replaced by Democrats.

Some data is below, showing the 30 Dem pickups (including 2 that are still too close to call). I’ve appended Charlie Cook’s PVI (average district vote in the last two presidential elections minus the national average).

It looks to me like the Dems have gained 19 seats that will be pretty easy to defend in 2008, which would give the Dems a slight majority. These seats are all in Democratic or slightly Republican districts and also in Democratic states in the NE, MW, CA, or FL.

I see two other factors that favor the Dems keeping the House in 2008. First, the loss of Republican control will encourage Reps to retire. Second, although I haven’t counted, I bet there are still way more moderate Reps in the NE and MW than there are conservative Dems in the South.

————————-

1. CT-02 Rob Simmons D+8 (not called)
2. IA-01 OPEN (Nussle) D+5
3. IA-02 Jim Leach D+7
4. FL-22 Clay Shaw D+4
5. PA-07 Curt Weldon D+4
6. CT-05 Nancy Johnson D+4
7. PA-08 Mike Fitzpatrick D+3
8. NH-02 Charlie Bass D+3
9. KY-03 Anne Northup D+2
10. CO-07 OPEN (Beauprez) D+2

1. NH-01 Jeb Bradley R+0
2. AZ-08 OPEN (Kolbe) R+1
3. MN-01 Gil Gutknecht R+1
4. NY-19 Sue Kelly R+1
5. NY-24 OPEN (Boehlert) R+1
6. FL-16 OPEN (Foley) R+2
7. CA-11 Richard Pombo R+3
8. NY-20 John Sweeney R+3
9. PA-04 Melissa Hart R+3

1. AZ-05 J.D. Hayworth R+4
2. IN-02 Chris Chocola R+4
3. WI-08 OPEN (Green) R+4
4. OH-18 OPEN (Ney) R+6
5. IN-09 Mike Sodrel R+7
6. KS-02 Jim Ryun R+7
7. NC-11 Charles Taylor R+7
8. PA-10 Don Sherwood R+8
9. IN-08 John Hostettler R+9
10. TX-22 OPEN (DeLay) R+15
11. WY-AL Barbara Cubin R+19 (not called)

28

abb1 11.09.06 at 7:03 am

If you want to talk about demographics here, probably the most important group you should’ve mentioned is Hispanics. This is how the Democrats win.

29

Jason 11.09.06 at 9:24 am

Interesting post.

The term “bias” (which seems to imply chauvinism) may not be the right one. These numbers could indicate, rather, that the parties really have gotten farther apart in philosophy, and many voters only identify with one worldview or the other.

Or it could be an inevitable result of politics becoming less local and more national. People voting on national issues pretty much have to vote along party lines, right? The less the issues change (minimum wage and universal health care on the one side; abortion and lower taxes on the other) the more this looks like “bias”.

Aside: I imagine a partisan atmosphere in Washington reinforces people’s partisan prejudices, simply because it’s so childish.

30

Henry 11.09.06 at 11:54 am

blah, ragout, fair enough. I’d meant to post an update saying that part of what was going on was the completion of a regional realignment, but never got round to it. But I don’t think ragout is right in arguing that there are lots more liberal republicans left in the north east to take out. There aren’t.

31

Martin James 11.09.06 at 1:56 pm

From a longer run policy point of view rather than a party point of view, are we seeing people in the northeast change their beliefs and preferences or only their party.

Party identification surely means a lot for the war and ending the neocon con. But longer term does it make a lot of difference whether the moderates are republican or democrat? In other words, how much has the average position on a given policy say national health care or immigration or estate taxes or union support changed in the congress and in the people?

A little or a lot?

Or better yet how will policy change on India, China and the WTO?

The issue of internal democratic politics becomes the importnat issue because the republicans seem geographically doomed. Republicans are leaving the north east of the Mississippi. When they lose AZ, and CO and NV the way they have OR, WA and CA, they can’t win nationally wiht just the south. Southerners being the wily political animals that they are will get on the winning side and return to running democrats and there won’t be any Republicans left.

Politics will become the internal struggle of the various liberal, moderate and conservative democrats.

32

Steve LaBonne 11.09.06 at 2:32 pm

But longer term does it make a lot of difference whether the moderates are republican or democrat?

When control of Congress is closely contested between the parties, then hell yes it makes a lot of difference.

33

Jim S. 11.09.06 at 2:57 pm

Bravo, a spot on analysis. Hopefully the Democrats will be democrats again.

This will be tough, though. Particularly the minority groups who, since the 1960’s have been so influential-that is, women, homosexuals, even Jews and African-Americans-tend to support centrists once their interests are secured (sorry but someone had to say it).

34

Russell Arben Fox 11.09.06 at 3:50 pm

Steve (#18): your challenge got me thinking, and I believe you’re right. When it comes to building coalitions that will last, it doesn’t do to emphasize too much the (in practice, actually rather slight, I think) differences between the small-town libertarian types that mainly want to keep their families healthy and their farms and neighborhoods functioning, and those populists that have a more moralistic bent to them. Both could at least fully talk to each other within a future potential Democratic party, whereas the way the present-day GOP has used (or been used by) the “homelander” vote has been much more narrow, focusing on a Protestant Christian populism at the expense of everything else. (Even more than before here.) So, insofar as Jon Tester and those like him are concerned, you’re right: we may not really be disagreeing much at all.

35

Bernard Yomtov 11.09.06 at 6:31 pm

Particularly the minority groups who, since the 1960’s have been so influential-that is, women, homosexuals, even Jews and African-Americans-tend to support centrists once their interests are secured (sorry but someone had to say it).

These “minority groups” make up a substantial majority of Democrats. If they are all centrists, (along with some non-Jewish white male straight Democrats) then maybe the Democratic party is largely centrist.

36

Martin James 11.09.06 at 8:02 pm

Steve Labonne,

You may be right that party identification makes a difference, but the democrats controlled house all through the Reagan presidency and the senate for part of Bush’s presidency.

How much difference did it really make?

37

Steve LaBonne 11.09.06 at 11:33 pm

A pretty fair amount. Heard, for the example, of the Iran-Contra hearings? Think a Republican House would have conducted them? Think a Democratic House would have impeached Clinton? And suppose the Dems had controlled the Senate throughout Bush’s term- there’d be no Justice Alito.

I’m not a huge fan of the Democratic establishment but I sure as hell prefer Nancy Pelosi to Denny Hastert. I’m not quite sure what to say to someone who affects to see little difference there…

38

Martin James 11.10.06 at 12:26 am

Steve,

Ortega is back.

Clinton stayed in office.

Scalia was confirmed 98-0.

I remember when Nixon was going to save us from the liberals, Carter from the crooks, Reagan from the welfare queens, Bush from the deficits, Clinton from the rich, W. from the licentious,
and I’m sure the next one from Iraq, deficits, the immigrants, HMO’s, global warming and a bad reputation.

I’m not affecting seeing little difference, I’m just resigned to things changing very little.

39

bad Jim 11.10.06 at 6:33 am

Salsa has replaced catsup as America’s favorite condiment. The fact that so many states have banned gay marriage certifies its place on the agenda everywhere.

(Twenty-some years ago we’d never heard of it. Some credit is due to Andrew Sullivan for putting it on the plate.)

The wonderful result of this election is that many terrible things won’t come to pass. Bolton is toast. Warrantless wiretapping will be timed out. The Supreme Court will not be inevitably perverted. In many ways, the rapid slide of handbaskets towards hell will be slowed, and this is good.

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