President Donald Trump should familiarize himself with the Jewish Sicarii from the First Jewish-Roman War (66 AD — 73 AD). The Sicarii, a splinter group of the Jewish Zealots, are most revered for their last stand against the Romans on the mountain fortress at Masada (in Israel near the Dead Sea).
Faced with certain annihilation by the Romans in 74 AD, the 960 Jewish Sicarii on Masada took their own lives, thereby denying the Romans the full satisfaction of victory.
In politics, the metaphorical equivalent to suicide is ending your candidacy for public office.
Now is the time for someone Trump trusts to walk the President through the different scenarios most likely to unfold over the next 12 months. None of them end well for the President. But one scenario ends demonstrably better than the others.
First, consider Trump’s worst-case scenario — the path he is on now — in which he is impeached, put on trial by the U.S. Senate, and is either removed from office and/or suffers a landslide defeat at the polling booth on November 3, 2020.
There is no electoral path to victory for Trump in 2020. There will be no surge in Hispanic or African-American votes large enough to give Trump another surprise victory. There will be no backlash over the impeachment hearings and Senate trial large enough to give him the victory either. And the strong economy will not push independents and swing voters overwhelmingly into his corner.
What if the Democrats nominate a deeply-flawed candidate? In all likelihood, they will nominate such a candidate — and Trump still won’t have the votes to win.
Based on the most current polling data, Trump’s maximum potential in the popular vote percentage is in the mid-to-upper-40s. With these numbers, the best-case scenario for Trump is that he doesn’t lose on a Jimmy Carter-like scale.
And the cocksure pundits saying Trump can still win in 2020 are many of the same ones that said he had no chance of winning in 2016.
Rest easy, Democrats. This time around, there really is no meaningful chance of another election surprise by Trump.
Donald Trump will not be re-elected president and here is why…
He has run out of time. One year may seem like an eternity in politics, but in the domain of presidential approval, one year is the blink of an eye.
Like Secretariat’s head-of-the-stretch move in the last quarter of the 1973 Kentucky Derby, relatively unpopular first-term presidents who eventually win re-election are already starting their approval surge by this point in their presidency (e.g., Reagan, Clinton, and Obama).
Trump is not Secretariat. According to the RealClearPolitics.com poll average, his job approval has been stagnant since May 2018 (see Figure 1) and, with impeachment hearings in the near future, the prospects for sustained approval growth are doubtful.
Figure 1: Trump Job Approval (Poll Averages)
According to the Gallup Poll, at this juncture in his presidency Trump is significantly behind Bill Clinton, G. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan — all incumbent presidents that were re-elected (see Figures 2 and 3). At 39 percent job approval in mid-October 2019, Trump is 10 points behind Clinton’s pace and 16 points behind G. W. Bush.
Figure 2: Job Approval During First-Term for Trump, GW Bush, and Clinton
Figure 3: Job Approval During First-Term for Reagan and Trump
At 13 months out from Election Day, Trump most resembles Barack Obama, with a job approval rating of 39 percent (see Figure 4). But that is where the similarity ends.
Figure 4: Job Approval During First-Term for Obama and Trump
Every modern president, except Trump, has experienced significant periods of job approval (among U.S. adults) north of 50 percent. Obama had around 50 weeks above 50 percent during his first term. Trump has spent zero weeks in that territory. As Figure 1 (above) shows, Trump’s job approval appears to have a ceiling at around 45 percent. Only in the first couple of weeks of his presidency did Trump enjoy approval ratings above 45 percent — and then, just barely.
Is 45-percent job approval enough to win a presidential election?
Since it has never happened, the answer is probably ‘No.’ In the modern polling era, the lowest job approval near Election Day for a winning incumbent is Obama’s 50 percent (see Figure 5). Obama did have some margin of error in that regard, as he won the popular vote by 3.9 percentage points and the electoral vote by 62 percentage points. But would Obama at 45 percent approval have won in 2012? Probably not.
Figure 5: Comparison of Recent Presidents on Job Approval and Re-election Outcomes
Figure 5 shows that winning incumbents have one thing in common: Job approval at or above 50 percent near Election Day. The two incumbent losers — Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush — possessed job approval ratings of 37 percent at that time. Not a good place to be.
And that is basically where Trump sits today.
Still, Trump is only 11 percentage points short of 50 percent approval. Thirteen months must be enough time for Trump to close the gap, right?
No, not for Trump it isn’t.
Trump’s uncommon problem is his lack of variation in job approval over time. For him to achieve 50 percent approval would require a magnitude of improvement unseen during his administration.
Figure 5 (above) puts Trump’s approval numbers in historical context. With a standard deviation of 2.5 percentage points, Trump has by far the lowest approval variance in of any president in the modern polling era. Second place is Obama with a standard deviation of 5.4 percentage points.
For Trump to achieve 50-percent approval, it would require a shift of four standard deviations from his mean approval level (39.7 percent approval — which is about where he is at now, according to Gallup). Based on his distribution of approval ratings over the past three years, there is about a 0.1 percent chance of Trump ever seeing 50-percent approval.
In other words, there is virtually no chance of Trump seeing approval numbers anywhere close to what he needs to get re-elected.
Even among the one-term presidents, both Carter and H. W. Bush experienced approval rates in excess of 50 percent (see Figure 6) during their administrations. Trump has no such experience and, most likely, never will.
Figure 6: Job Approval During First-Term for Carter, G HW Bush, and Trump
Am I being too pessimistic? Just because Trump has never enjoyed the approval of most Americans, that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. Did Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 ever feel possible?
Suppose, instead, that Trump leverages the strong economy while turning a strong majority of American people against the impeachment process underway in the Democrat-controlled U.S. House [Right now, that scenario seems unlikely given recent polling data showing 49 percent of the public supports impeachment and removal.)
In months where Trump’s approval increases, on average in grows at about 0.8 percentage points per month. If, over the next 12 months, Trump’s approval grows each month at that rate, he would enter Election Day around 50 percent approval. Conceivably, he’d be a competitive candidate with that approval level— particularly if a third-party candidacy from the left emerges.
Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that scenario is even remotely possible. Trump has never put together more than three consecutive months of approval growth. To win re-election, he needs 12 consecutive months.
Others point to Trump’s huge money advantage. (If the 2016 election teaches us anything, having more money isn’t always enough. Ask Hillary.)
And others assume the Democrats will find a way to screw up another winnable election.
The problem with GOP optimism is its requirement that Trump’s job approval will increase consistently on a scale unobserved heretofore.
Trump has never sniffed 50 percent approval and there is no evidence to think he will.
There are just too many firsts required for a Trump re-election victory to become a reality. To almost quote Hans Solo, presidential job approval just doesn’t work that way.
For Trump, the impeachment process is a cloudy day that won’t go away. Nowhere does GOP optimism get more delusional than when talking about the supposed backlash the Democrats are going to suffer if they pursue impeachment. Remember Clinton! is their battle cry. The American people will punish the Democrats for trying to remove a U.S. president over such a minor incident (the alleged Trump-Ukrainian quid pro quo deal) is their logic.
I do remember Bill Clinton. The Republicans tried to remove him for covering up an Oval Office blow job after years of trying (and failing) to indict him for financial misdeeds surrounding the infamous Whitewater land deal.
Clinton’s situation bears no resemble to one where Trump appears to — at least implicitly — ask a foreign leader to aid his presidential campaign by investigating Hunter Biden’s relationship with a Ukrainian energy company in exchange for the delivery of U.S. surface-to-air defense systems.
[Trump’s defense materializes in one of two forms: ‘It wasn’t anexplicit double-dog-dare-youquid pro quo’ or ‘The president is just reallyconcerned about Ukrainian corruptionand its implications on U.S. national security.’ Coincidently, when it is soon revealed Obama explicitly approved the surveillance of an opposition party’s presidential candidate, his defense will be similar to Trump’s ‘in the name of national security’ defense.]
The confidence among Trump’s flock begs the question: How could Trump’s approval gain during an impeachment process predicated on genuine evidence when it didn’t grow at all during the course of the Robert Mueller-led investigation of Russia-Trump collusion? An investigation predicated on exceptionally thin evidence for such an unparalleled allegation.
Trump needs to make the best out of a certain defeat. Certain defeats are prevalent throughout military and political history: The Greeks, 7,000 in number, blocking the passage of 70,000 Persian soldiers in the Battle of Thermopylae. The Chasseurs Ardennaisdisguising their numbersagainst the Nazi Wehrmacht in the Battle of Belgium. Walter Mondale picking Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate against Ronald Reagan in 1984.The Jewish Sicarii committing collective suicide on their mountain fortress at Masada rather than allow the Romans the satisfaction of a battle victory.
Despite their defeats, the defeated are remembered more for their heroics than their objective failures. Sure, in Mondale’s case, picking a female VP was more like a Hail Mary than an act of heroism. Nonetheless, history is often kind to losers who go down with honor and flair — particularly when their final act is seemingly selfless.
The words ‘selfless’ and ‘Trump’ are not often used in the same sentence, but a selfless act may be the only “winning” option left for the President. A drubbing at the hands of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren is not going to help the Trump brand, much less a Republican Party on the verge of losing the presidency, House and Senate.
For the sake of his party and his legacy, Trump would be better served walking away from the 2020 election, giving his party at least a puncher’s chance to keep the presidency. Former UN ambassador Nikki Haley or Texas Senator Ted Cruz are more than capable of taking the baton on short notice and putting forth a credible presidential campaign.
He can do a nationwide tour promoting his greatest and most perfect accomplishments. Throngs of devotees can gush over him with messianic-like adoration. Everything he cares most about — himself — confirmed in a series of uncensored, glorious pep rallies.
Just as the Sicarii denied the Romans their want for a victory in battle, Trump can deny the Democrats their want for his head on the figurative platter.
The Roman-era Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus described what the Roman army found when the scaled Masada’s steep walls:
Now for the Romans, they expected that they should be fought in the morning, when accordingly they put on their armor, and laid bridges of planks upon their ladders from their banks, to make an assault upon the fortress, which they did, but saw nobody as an enemy, but a terrible solitude on every side, with a fire within the place as well as a perfect silence.
Battle glory denied.
Trump is not going to win the 2020 election and will likely take down the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate in the process, and probably an innumerable number of state officeholders as well.
For the good of his party and his own self-interest, Trump needs to end his 2020 presidential campaign.
Praise and insults can be sent to: email@example.com
[Note: The names in this essay have been changed to protect identities.]
If the world seems on the verge of exploding, you are probably watching too much news on cable TV.
On the other hand, there may be something real going on. Something so fundamental that even the U.S. can’t alter its trajectory.
In the past few months, we have had protests in Hong Kong, Ecuador, Chile, Lebanon, Iraq, UK and Jordan. Whether it is teachers, pro or anti-Brexiteers, students, or disgruntled commuters, anger appears to be rising among the world’s citizens.
The dark forces exploiting this growing discontent are gaining power so fast, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius is convinced the time is now for the U.S. to extend its regime-change magic to Lebanon. [What could possibly go wrong?]
But is this apparent increase in worldwide protest significantly different from the recent past? The answer is a tentative ‘yes.’
Let us look at the data. According to the GDELT project, the term ‘protest’ in the world’s TV news has been on the rise since January 2018, particularly on Al Jazeera and the BBC World Service.
Figure 1: Frequency the term ‘protest’ used in major news broadcasts
We are repeatedly told by the news media that, since the election of Donald Trump, the world has become more agitated (and Figure 1 suggests this is true). And this tumult has had profound consequences on countries otherwise free of conflict and violence.
Nowhere more so than Jordan and its capital city of Amman.
Amman, Jordan rests in the middle of it all
Human settlements in Amman, Jordan date back over 9,000 years, but the city today doesn’t look a day over 200-years-old.
Amman is like a pair of old leather shoes that are comfortable. Clearly having seen more prosperous days, the city is ragged but relaxed. It’s worn down but durable.
My son and I had just arrived in Amman from Muscat, Oman, the day before when a hired driver picked us up at our hotel near the old city center.
Our driver, Farouk, a middle-aged Palestinian and father of four, said he was eager to show us his city as he took one last drag on his half-smoked cigarette before snuffing it out. [Everyone in Jordan smokes, or so it seemed. Hookah lounges were everywhere.]
As our hotel was in old Amman, near the former parliament building, we were walking distance to most everything we needed during our four-day stay. Still, an informal driving tour is a useful introduction to any new city.
Farouk’s English was far better than my Arabic so after a few minutes of exploratory small-talk, we settled into a conversational rhythm that seemed to facilitate mutual understanding.
Soviet-era Russian proverb: To learn about someone’s politics, avoid talking politics.
When traveling abroad, it is advisable to avoid conversations about politics, particularly in a country like Jordan which, despite the generally laid back demeanor of its citizens, is still a constitutional monarchy where political speech and press freedoms are significantly constrained. The democracy watchdog group, Freedom House, classifies Jordan as only ‘partly free,’ scoring the country a 37 out of 100 on their Freedom Index. In its 2019 report on worldwide press freedom,Reporters without Borders (RWB) ranked Jordan 130th out 180 countries (Afghanistan ranks higher than Jordan on the RWB’s Press Freedom Index).
Nevertheless, in a region where one’s very existence can be a potent political statement, politics hangs in the bone-dry Jordanian air like a low-frequency hum. You see politics everywhere, if you look for it.
Using an unscientific sampling method (i.e., any taxi cab that passed Farouk’s car), I estimated that about 1-in-20 Amman taxi cabs had Saddam Hussein’s image pasted on the back bumper or window. Not a surprise, considering the former Iraqi strongman was one of the first Arab leaders to embrace the Palestinian cause, at least superficially; but the ubiquity of his image still begged the question: “Why Saddam Hussein?”
“He is admired by many Palestinians,” Farouk said. He didn’t elaborate. He didn’t need to.
During his rule, Saddam Hussein granted equal-rights status to roughly 35,000 Palestinian refugees living in Iraq — most of whom came to Iraq in one of three waves: (1) the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation, (2) after the Six-Day War in 1967, and (3) and in the 1990s after many Palestinians were expelled by Gulf states opposed to Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait.
“Portraying himself as a defender of the Palestinian cause for statehood, Saddam gave them subsidized housing and the right to work — rare privileges for foreign refugees that bred resentment among many Iraqis,” according to journalist Ahmed Rasheed.
Not every Jordanian Palestinian keeps warm feelings about Saddam, however. One such person on my Reddit feed (“Samir”) explained the Jordanian fondness for the former Iraqi leader as rooted in his selling oil to Jordan in the 1990s at preferential prices in exchange for the Jordanians helping Saddam escape U.N-imposed sanctions by utilizing Jordan’s Aqaba port.
“Let us not forget that Iraq under his reign tried to blow up some Amman hotels in the 1990s hosting Americans,” Samir noted.
Farouk abruptly merged onto Khaled Ben Al-Walid Street, a major road artery in Amman’s central district, cutting off a taxi cab in the process. As he darted back and forth between lanes of fast-moving traffic, I felt like I was on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney World.
As our speed settled into a crawl as we came upon a minor traffic jam, Farouk pointed to some nondescript buildings to our left. “Jabal el-Hussein refugee camp,” he said.
“A Palestinian camp?” I asked.
“Yes,” he responded. “Created after 1948 (Arab-Israeli war). But now also Syrians and Egyptians.”
Built in 1952, the camp originally housed 8,000 Palestinian refugees in a area covering 0.4 square kilometers in northwest Amman, not far from the The Citadel, a Roman-era complex of ruins in the heart of Amman. Today, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) says the camp’s population exceeds 29,000 registered refugees, but unofficial population estimates report the number of people living in Jabal el-Hussein camp is between 40,000 and 60,000 people, including many Syrian refugees who escaped that country’s recent civil war.
My first surprise was that the Jabal el-Hussein camp looked like just another Amman neighborhood. The buildings were closer together, perhaps. But, otherwise, it would be hard to know where the camp begins and where it ends.
After over 60 years in existence, many Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan have morphed from transitory tent cities to complex, permanent communities that, by all appearances, seem integrated into the host country’s economy.
“Is it safe for us to walk around the camp?” I asked timidly, not wanting to offend our host.
“Safe?” he said with a smile. “This is Jordan. Of course, it is safe.” A refrain we would hear more than once while in Jordan.
Before starting our driving tour of Amman, I had asked Farouk if we could visit one of the Amman’s Palestinian refugee camps. He didn’t respond at the time, which I assumed was either a function of the language barrier or that I was asking something politically sensitive.
So when in the middle of our car tour he pointed out the Jabal el-Hussein camp, I was surprised. Pleasantly so. And even more so as he continued talking about refugees more broadly — specifically, their impact on everyday life in Jordanian society.
“We have many refugees because we are safe,” Farouk started. “But our government doesn’t have the money to take care of everyone.”
Behind only Lebanon, Jordan has 71 refugees for every 1,000 Jordanian citizens. In third place is Turkey, with 43 refugees for every 1,000 Turkish citizens.
Figure 2: Countries with highest refugee density (2017)
But, factoring in undocumented refugees, one World Bank official estimated that one-out-of-three people living in Jordan in 2015 was a refugee. In a country of 9.7 million, that is around 3 million refugees.
Whatever the true figure, refugees are a major cost factor within the country’s public and private economies.
“Jordan is now hosting just over 650,000 registered Syrian refugees, with some estimating the total number, including unregistered persons, closer to double that,” according to Mark Plant, Chief Operating Officer of the Center for Global Development (Europe), an independent research organization. “At the same time, international partners, notably the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have been insisting that Jordan take actions to bring down government debt to more sustainable levels through increasing fiscal discipline to tame government deficits. These dual imperatives by the international community — host more refugees and tame the budget — seem to put Jordan in an untenable situation as long as the refugee crisis continues.”
In terms of Jordan’s financial ability to handle such a large refugee population, the evidence is mixed. On the positive side, at 30 percent of GDP, Jordan has a relatively small amount of external debt (i.e., total public and private debt owed to nonresidents repayable in internationally accepted currencies). In terms of gross government debt, however, Jordan possesses one of the highest debt levels relative to GDP at 96 percent (for comparison, the gross government debt relative to GDP for the U.S. is 107 percent). For all countries, the average gross government debt relative to GDP is 60 percent, according to the IMF.
Jordan receives substantial support from the international community. But, even with that assistance, Jordan’s government budget is strained…and the people feel it.
More than once Farouk reminded me that the Palestinians in Jordan “are Jordanians.” And he wanted to make it clear that Jordanian support for the Syrian and Iraqi refugees is evidence of Jordan’s strong humanitarian history, but that Jordanian citizens — most of whom are Palestinian — cannot be of secondary importance.
Farouk’s sentiment should sound vaguely familiar to Americans. Replace “Syrian refugees” with “Mexicans” and “Jordanians” with “Americans” and you have Donald Trump’s core immigration platform.
And it is not just working-class Jordanians extending this opinion. Ahmed, a Jordanian academic and former senior government official for Jordan’s King Abdullah told me during dinner, “Few countries have more refugees for its population size than Jordan — and we have expertise on refugees issues that we need to share — but we also have limits.”
Concerned that Jordan’s government budget deficit was too high to maintain long-term, he cited Jordan’s recent teachers strike that resulted in Jordanian teachers getting a 35 percent pay raise. “The government didn’t even get the teachers to accept performance pay standards,” he lamented.
The Jordanian teachers strike underscores the risk in underestimating the potential for Jordan’s domestic stressors to impact regime stability. Nevertheless, casual conversations with Jordanians leave a strong impression that popular support for the King Abdullah is high and not immediately threatened.
As Farouk dropped my son and I off at our hotel following our tour, I again asked if there were any areas near our hotel we should avoid walking around at night. He clearly thought I was just another overly cautious, misinformed American — but, in my defense, Amman is a big city and like any city it has ‘bad areas.’
“You are safe,” he assured me. “This is Jordan.”
Farouk’s national pride notwithstanding, a variety of crime statistics do confirm that Jordan is relatively safe, at least compared to its neighbors.
According to Numbeo.com’s survey-based Crime index, Jordan is relatively crime-free compared to its Arab neighbors, ranking 62nd out of 123 countries. In comparison, the Palestinian Territories rank 46th, Lebanon 63rd, Iraq 73rd, Egypt 81st, and Syria 114th. Using a more concrete metric — annual homicide rate — Jordan ranks 67th out of 195 countries with an annual murder rate of 1.4 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 9.9 for Iraq, 4.0 for Lebanon, and 2.5 for Egypt.
But it is not on individual-level crime statistics that Jordan stands out. Saudi Arabia is much safer than Jordan, but at a tremendous cost to Saudi personal freedoms. It is at a more macro-level that Jordan truly looks like a regional outlier.
In Amman, we were only 55 miles from the Syrian border at the Jaber Border Crossing (similar to the distance between Philadelphia and Dover, Delaware) and 130 miles from Damascus, Syria (similar to the distance between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.). Yet, the problems of Jordan’s northern neighbor could not have felt more distant. Even as news coverage of Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria dominated the regional news channels, there was no evidence that people in Amman were overly concerned. Our hosts occasionally would make glancing references about the Turkey-Syrian-Kurdish conflict, and only as a contrast to Jordan’s general state of peace and generosity in taking in Syrian refugees.
“You can’t blame the Syrians here in Jordan for not wanting to go back to Syria,” commented Ahmed. “They fear reprisals from (Bashar al) Assad’s police state.”
My most vivid contrast to Jordan was the country of Oman, where my son and I had spent the previous week prior to arriving in Amman.
Other than Islam’s omnipresence, Jordan is an antipode to Oman. Modernity has settled into Oman with the subtlety of a Donald Trump applause line. The newness found everywhere in Oman’s capital, Muscat, has a calculated presence amidst a still conservative Islamic society, suggesting Muscat as a ‘future Dubai’ at one moment and, at another, emitting the aura of a stubbornly ancient culture. It’s a tension that may work in Oman’s favor in the long run. Or it may not.
What Oman and Jordan have in common is their status as enclaves of peace and stability surrounded by neighbors that are either being bombed or bombing someone else.
Here’s a quick rundown of Jordan and Oman’s neighborhood:
Egypt’s Sisi regime is facing its biggest domestic protests of its relatively brief reign. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has regressed into an active, never-ending crime scene disproportionately favoring the perpetrator over the victim and showing no signs of changing that dynamic.
Syria is the mess du jour for now. But Iraq always waits in the anteroom ready to take over that role in a moment’s notice.
Lebanon is facing its largest mass protests in decades. And, on Lebanon’s southern border, Hezbollah remains locked in a continuous standoff with Israel while it also support’s Assad’s efforts to regain a tight grip on his people.
Saudi Arabia and UAE continue their cruel proxy war with Iran in Yemen, leaving the most vulnerable in Yemen on the constant brink of death by famine and disease.
And, yet, there is Jordan in the middle of all that chaos, appreciating their relative quiescence, but always aware that it could end.
I asked a prominent Jordanian political scientist what Jordan’s secret is to maintaining stability. It’s not like Jordan controls vast reserves of oil and natural gas to buy social tranquility. They are not a worldwide IT hub like Israel.
How does Jordan do it?
The professor leaned back in his chair, stroking his chin. “If I knew, I’d bottle it and sell it to the world.”
It was the evening of March 31, 1968. President Lyndon Johnson, nearing the end of a televised speech to the nation regarding the Vietnam War and the administration’s accelerated effort to organize peace talks with the North Vietnamese, dropped this political bomb on the American people:
“I have concluded that I should not permit the presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year,” Johnson said. “With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes, or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office — the presidency of your country. Accordingly, I shall not seek, and will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
Apart from his wife and few close advisers, including Vice President Hubert Humphrey, LBJ’s political denouement was a shock to almost everyone that knew him.
No president loved the art of politics more than LBJ. The journey in passing landmark legislation was, in many ways, more important to him than the legislation itself. The greatest pieces of legislation passed during his administration — Civil Rights Act (1964), Economic Opportunity Act (1964), Immigration Reform Act (1964), Social Security Amendments (1965), Voting Rights Act (1965)—to this day stand as living monuments to this country’s last successful activist president. Almost every substantive domestic policy debate today (Medicare, immigration, voting rights) centers on legislation passed as part of LBJ’s Great Society and War on Poverty initiatives.
Which is why LBJ’s decision not to seek re-election in 1968 surprised many Washington, DC elites. Granted, his approval ratings at the time were in steady decline, sitting at 36 percent according to a Gallup Poll conducted right before the March 31st speech (see Figure 1). His fall with the American public was due, in large part, to the worsening war in Vietnam. Still, as recently as January 1968, LBJ’s approval ratings had stood at 48 percent — a number President Donald Trump would kill for today. (Literally, I believe Trump would kill to have 48 percent approval.)
Figure 1: Presidential Approval for LBJ, Barack Obama and Donald Trump (by weeks in office)
Should I stay or should I go?
Historians generally explain LBJ’s decision not to run for re-election in 1968 in the growing discontent over the Vietnam War and the political strength demonstrated by anti-War Democrats, such as Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, who received 42 percent of the vote to LJB’s 49 percent in the March 12th New Hampshire primary. When New York Senator Robert Kennedy joined the Democratic nomination race on March 16th, LBJ knew his path to the nomination was precarious — a nearly unprecedented position for an incumbent president.
Also burdening the 59-year-old LBJ in early 1968 was his health, Vice President Humphrey recalling that the president told him before the March 31st speech that “all of the men in his family had died in their early sixties or before.”
Nonetheless, LBJ had many good reasons to run for re-election. The economy was strong under his stewardship. Since his election in 1964, the U.S. experienced real annual GDP growth rates of 8.5 percent, 4.6 percent, and 2.7 percent; and in the election year of 1968, the economy grew at a torrid 5.0 percent. Economic growth under Trump has been half that as under LBJ (2.6 percent vs. 5.2 percent, respectively).
Besides perhaps JFK, no politician was a more important advocate for the U.S. space program than LBJ. In March 1968, barely a year removed from the Apollo 1 tragedy when three astronauts died preparing for the first Apollo mission, LBJ knew man’s first landing on the moon would occur in Summer 1969. He wanted to be president at that moment.
Yet, all things considered, LBJ decided not to run for re-election.
And history has remained mixed on his legacy and place among the pantheon of American presidents.
How is LBJ relevant to Donald Trump?
There are major differences between what LBJ faced in March 1968 and Donald Trump faces in October 2019.
For one, LBJ wasn’t facing impeachment. Secondly, Donald Trump is not facing a serious challenge to his nomination. The 2020 Republican candidacies of Mark Sanford, Bill Weld, and Joe Walsh will be remembered for their negligible importance, not their threat to Trump’s control over the Republican Party.
Donald Trump will win the Republican nomination in 2020, if he chooses to compete. But should he compete for it?
The combination of Trump’s pathological vanity and insecurity puts his odds of running for re-election very high. At the same time, he has repeatedly demonstrated enough self-awareness to know when he needs to back down.
When Fox News’ Megyn Kelly confronted candidate Trump on his history of bimbo-laden insults of women, he apologized quickly. Trump is far less confrontational than many assume.
Trump knows when he’s facing insurmountable odds, even if his instincts on the proper tasks he can ask world leaders to do for this re-election efforts may be imperfect.
Trump’s requests of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Chinese leader Xi Jingping to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden are unequivocally over the line of presidential propriety. If Trump doesn’t realize it now, he will soon. His double-down, over-the-top defense of his behavior offers evidence that he already understands the gravity of his mistake.
President Donald Trump will be impeached by the U.S. House and anyone assuming the U.S. Senate won’t convict is living in a thought bubble of their own design.
Which is why LBJ’s case is so important and why President Trump needs to look closely at what the 36th President decided at a critical time in U.S. history.
LBJ took a backseat to no president with respect to his ego and naked audacity. Even so, he knew when he had worn out his welcome in D.C. He knew when to call it quits.
Where Russiagate was built on half-truths, conjecture and innuendo, the Trump administration’s actions with Ukraine and China regarding investigations into the Biden family is based on Trump’s own admissions. The evidence is already stacked against him.
Henceforth, things are not going to end well if Trump decides to ride this political bull much longer. Someone in his inner circle must tell him that. And when they do, Trump will do the right thing to do — at least I can hope.
Trump should follow LBJ’s lead and remove his name from consideration for the 2020 Republican nomination for president.
It’s the right thing to do for his party. It’s the right thing to do for his legacy. It’s the right thing to do for the nation. It’s the only rational thing to do.
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If they can get you to ask the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers. (Thomas Pynchon, author of “Gravity’s Rainbow”)
Nothing exemplifies the dishonesty of the mainstream media and the Democratic Party better than their defense of Joe and Hunter Biden’s relationship with the Ukrainian government and Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian gas company, in 2014.
The most common media narrative defending the Bidens in their dealings in the Ukraine is summarized by Mother Jones’ David Corn, once the majordomo anti-establishment journalism, but who is now mostly a messenger boy for the Democratic Party’s corporate wing:
“(Trump) cites the fact-free conspiracy theory that Biden, when vice president, urged the firing of a Ukrainian prosecutor (who was widely seen as corrupt) to protect a Ukrainian company on whose board Biden’s son, Hunter, sat. (Biden did press for this prosecutor’s dismissal, representing the desire of many Western nations, and there is no evidence it had anything to do with his son’s connection to the Ukrainian firm.)”
The gist of Corn’s Biden defense is that when Barack Obama’s Vice President threatened in late-2015 to cut off military aid to Ukraine if their government did not appoint an anti-corruption prosecutor, he was working against the interests of his son, Hunter, who was already on the board of Burisma Holdings, a gas company founded by Mykola Zlockevsky in 2002.
Biden and the Obama administration wanted the Ukrainian prosecor to go after Zlochevsky, the man paying Hunter Biden $50,000-a-month to “lead” Burisma’s legal team. Case closed on any Biden corruption, right?
Not so fast. Step back. Take a deep breath. And review the basic timeline of the Ukraine-Burisma-Biden story:
2002: Mykola Zlochevsky founds Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company.
February 2014: Yanukovych, widely seen in the West as a Moscow-aligned kleptocrat, was removed from power in February 2014 as a result of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution.
February— March 2014: In late-February, in the aftermath of the Ukrainian revolution, Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered the extrication of the deposed Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and told his security service chiefs that “we must start working on returning Crimea to Russia.” Crimea is subsequently annexed by Russia.
April 2014: In an effort to bring stability and transparency to the Ukraine’s lucrative energy industry, the Barack Obama administration and its European partners sent top officials to a forum on Ukrainian asset recovery, co-sponsored by the U.S. government, in London, where Mr. Zlochevsky’s case was cited as an example of ongoing corruption within the country. At this time, Hunter Biden, the Vice President’s son, is named to the board of Burisma Holdings, receiving $50,000-a-month for his services.
May 2014: On 29 May, Poroshenko won the Ukrainian presidential election with 54.7% of the votes. Poroshenko was widely seen as aligned with US-European interests.
Early 2015: Viktor Shokin becomes the Ukrainian prosecutor general, inheriting the Burisma investigation from the previous prosecutor. The Obama administration concludes Shokin is protecting Ukraine’s political elite and considers him an obstacle to anti-corruption efforts.
December 2015: Joe Biden threatens Ukrainian President Poroshenko that if he did not fire Shokin, whose own deputy claimed was “slow-walking” the Burisma investigation, the US would hold back its $1 billion in loan guarantees.
March 2016: Shokin was dismissed by the Ukrainian Parliament.
May 2016: A US-approved prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko, was appointed in Shokin’s place.
September 2016: Burisma paid approximately USD $7.5 million in taxes and fines, concluding Prosecutor General Lutsenko’s anti-corruption efforts against Burisma and Zlochevsky. At the same time, a money laundering case against Zlochevsky was closed in a London court, as well as an embezzlement case against him, according to Lutsenko.
Zlochevsky said that the end of investigation of Burisma Group “will allow to increase production, investment in production and to attract international companies to Ukraine.”
April 2019: Hunter Biden leaves Burisma’s board. By all accounts, Hunter Biden performed no tangible or documented services for Burisma.
The most lucrative corruption is legal
If this timeline exonerates Joe Biden and his son, the definition of corruption must be rendered meaningless.
In the timeline, Zlochevsky’s hiring of Hunter Biden appears independent of the appointment of Shokin as the Ukrainian prosecutor general. Instead, its timing is most likely connected to the broader project of protecting Zlochevsky and Burisma Holdings as targets of U.S. and European-led anti-corruption efforts. And to that end, Zlochevsky and Burisma Holdings could not have been more successful.
Why commit a bribery crime when a legal path is equally, if not more, effective? Putting the son of a sitting U.S. Vice President on the board of your company at a time when your company is being accused of corruption is not just common sense, it is a proven business practice.
The defense of Joe and Hunter Biden by the Democratic Party and the mainstream media is predicted on this deliberate and unsubtle imposture.
Is it a crime? Probably not. Is it corruption? Absolutely. And here’s why:
When Hunter Biden became a director at Burisma, ostensibly hired to lead a legal team that would ensure the company followed proper governance norms as it positioned itself for lucrative contracts in Ukraine’s fast growing energy sector, he had no prior experience in the natural gas industry or the Ukrainian regulatory environment. And, by Hunter Biden’s own admission, after joining Burisma, he did not actually lead a legal team.
So why did Burisma hire Hunter Biden (along with his business partner Devon Archer)?
“In April 2014, he became a director of Burisma, the largest natural-gas producer in Ukraine. He had no prior experience in the gas industry, nor with Ukrainian regulatory affairs, his ostensible purview at Burisma. He did have one priceless qualification: his unique position as the son of the vice president of the United States, newborn Ukraine’s most crucial ally.
When Hunter Biden joined Burisma’s board, $23 million of Zlochevsky’s riches were being frozen by the British government in a corruption probe. Zlochevsky fled Ukraine. The younger Biden enlisted his law firm, Boies Schiller Flexner, to provide what The New Yorker describes as “advice on how to improve the company’s corporate governance.” Eventually, the asset freeze on Zlochevsky was lifted.”
If President Donald Trump and his private lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, were a smidgen more sophisticated, they would know there is little new information for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up on the Bidens. For the most part, the story has been thoroughly researched and reported in the news media.
The problem is not lack of reporting. The problem has been the deliberate naivete of the news media in interpreting the story’s facts. When The New York Times declared earlier this year that “no evidence of wrongdoing” had been uncovered in their research into the Biden-Ukraine story, they ignored the naked act of bribery standing right in front of them: Burisma hiring the Vice President’s son to a $50,000-a-month, task-free gig WAS THE BRIBE!
Most lamentable about the Biden-Ukraine story is that such acts of corruption are not just legal, but openly flaunted. George Carlin was right when he described the U.S. economic and political establishment as a “big club and you ain’t in it.”
U.S. law does not prevent the family members of senior administration officials from sitting on corporate boards of foreign companies run by corrupt oligarchs. And while civil libertarians will rightfully protest any attempt to give the federal government discretion on what corporate boards private citizens can sit on, the current system goes to the other extreme, placing few (if any) restraints on the overt corruption on display with the Bidens.
As for the federal government’s ethics rules governing nepotism, the focus in on inhibiting family members from holding senior positions within a chain-of-command inside the same department or agency. Federal law and ethics rules say diddly squat about family members of senior administration officials trading on their name and access for private financial gain.
“When prominent Americans leverage their global reputations for financial gain, they attract almost no attention today,” writes Chayes. “So when this same Biden takes his son with him to China aboard Air Force Two, and within days Hunter joins the board of an investment advisory firm with stakes in China, it does not matter what father and son discussed. Joe Biden has enabled this brand of practice, made it bipartisan orthodoxy. And the ethical standard in these cases — people’s basic understanding of right and wrong — becomes whatever federal law allows. Which is a lot.”
China? Oh, poor Joe Biden. We haven’t even started to talk about how the Dover Cosa Nostra profited from that relationship.
We’ll save that for another day.
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By Kent R. Kroeger (NuQum.com, September 27, 2019)
Acknowledging the news media is largely responsible for turning Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s into the leading challenger to Joe Biden in no way suggests she is not worthy. She is.
But it also reminds us that underestimating the power of the news media to play political kingmaker is unwise.
Some social theorists have even suggested that the nation’s most powerful elites control the political process by manufacturing consent through their control of the mass media.
Using the oft-cited Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky definition, manufacturing consent is the acceptance of government policies by citizens on the basis of incomplete information provided by the mass media; and, denying them access to conflicting information that might challenge the views of those in power.
No conspiracy theory is required in claiming that the cable news networks are manufacturing consent for the ascension of Warren to the Democratic presidential nomination. And we would be having this conversation about Kamala Harris instead, had it not been for the Tulsi Gabbard-spun black hole Harris disappeared into at the 2nd Democratic debate. The news media can make candidates overnight, and kick them to the gutter just as quickly.
As of today, there is one candidate whose rise stands out from the others.
Warren’s status asone of the top challenger’s to Biden is undeniable (she is the dark brown line in Figure 1) and highlights the equally indisputable fact that support for Bernie Sanders (blue line) has run aground at around 17 percent since May.
Figure 1: RealClearPolitics Poll Average for 2020 Democratic Nomination
Sanders came into this race at around 15 to 20 percent support among likely Democratic primary voters, the afterglow from his groundbreaking 2016 campaign against the Democratic Party establishment.
But how did Warren get to where she is in the polls?
If you believe her support is due to her progressive bona fides, political skills and charisma, you may be engaged in wishful thinking. Warren is not a great public speaker, is charisma challenged (certainly by Barack Obama standards), and has not proven herself to be adept at handling tough questions from the media.
“Before presidential candidate Warren starts peddling the ‘success’ of her pet project on the campaign trail, she should consider how an agency that was formed under the guise of “consumer protection” has done more to hurt consumers than help,” argues Jeff Joseph, former head of domestic policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce from 1982 to 1997. “Since the bureau’s inception nine years ago, it has become one of Washington’s most unaccountable agencies.”
Still, as of today, Warren is in the strongest position to beat former Vice President Biden for the Democratic nomination. As to why she leads the opposition to Biden is a legitimate question that deserves a quantitative answer.
Warren is a business law and policy expert, as she has demonstrated in the debates
Warren’s deep knowledge of economic and financial policy makes her a formidable presidential candidate, particularly on a debate stage. Bernie Sanders’ own senior economic adviser, Professor Stephanie Kelton, better known for her advocacy of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), praises Warren for her ability to explain why Sanders’ signature proposal — Medicare for All — would likely result in a net decrease in the financial burden of healthcare for the vast majority of U.S. households.
“Warren does an extremely good job keeping the focus on total costs,” Kelton tweeted recently. “We already pay more than anyone in the world, and we pay more than we will end up paying (collectively) under Medicare for All.”
Yet, Warren’s ability to cogently explain the benefits of Medicare for All over our current system only frustrates progressive Democrats who feel betrayed by Warren’s reluctance to make a firm commitment to Bernie’s plan. Twitter gadflies have been out in force questioning Warren’s commitment to progressive ideas.
Kyle Kulinski, a progressive favorite in the podcast sphere, recently detailed his reasons for distrusting Warren, citing, among other things, her willingness to court Wall Street and business executives even as she professes that she will hold Wall Street “accountable” and stop the “main sources of Wall Street looting.”
“One candidate (Warren) waffles on Medicare for All and the other one (Sanders) never has,” Kulinski told his podcast audience. “That tells me she’s less likely to pursue it, and even if she does pursue it, it is unlikely she’s gonna waste a lot of political capital and go to the mat to try to get it implemented.”
The ambivalence of some progressives towards Warren brings to the fore her internal contradictions. Warren, a former Harvard business law professor and registered Republican until 1995, creates genuine angst among Wall Street power brokers when she talks about banking reform with level of authority few others in the Democratic nomination race can match. At the same time, Warren, the politician, is actively telling Democratic Party leaders she wants to work within the current political-economic system, not do a complete overhaul to the extent advocated by Sanders.
In that sense, Warren is cast in the same mold as Barack Obama — an incrementalist at her core — and her rise in the polls has seemingly coincided her growing number of public overtures to former Hillary Clinton and Obama supporters.
Not all candidates benefit from more media coverage — but Warren does
Despite a concerted effort from some progressives to stunt the Warren surge in the polls, the reality is that she is rising faster than any other candidate for the Democratic nomination.
What is the explanation?
Using aggregated polling data from RealClearPolitics.com and cable news coverage data from The GDELT Project, an open source platform that monitors the world’s news media, we uncover evidence that changes in cable news coverage of Warren predicts changes in Warren’s popularity. Whereas, changes in Warren’s popularity does not predict changes in the volume of Warren’s cable news coverage.
Figure 2 shows how spikes in Warren’s public support track line up with spikes in the relative amount of cable news coverage she receives.
Figure 2: Tracking Warren’s Public Support and Cable News Coverage
Figure 3 summarizes Warren’s public support and the relative volume of her cable news coverage by plotting their relationship — which we can see is very strong (the two-variable regression model accounts for nearly half of the variance in her public support).
Figure 3: Relationship between Warren Support and Cable News Coverage
Contrast Warren’s data with the same variables measured for Sanders (see Figure 4). His scatterplot shows no discernible relationship between his public support and cable news coverage. Why would they be related so strongly for Warren and minimally for Sanders?
The quick answer is that Sanders, having run in 2016, is a known quantity and likely 2020 voters do not rely as heavily on news coverage to form attitudes about Sanders — in other words, their views on Sanders may already be firmly established.
Figure 4: Relationship between Sanders Support and Cable News Coverage
While Figures 2–3 indicate substantial common variation between Warren’s public support and cable news coverage, the graphs tell us little about the causal direction. Which causes which? Are they even related once other factors are considered?
Figure 5 is an initial step in trying to answer those two questions. After aggregating the daily data for public support (% support according to RealClearPolitics poll average) and the relative volume of cable news coverage (% of airtime) to the weekly-level, I estimated for each of the top 2020 candidates (Biden, Warren, Sanders, Harris and Buttigieg) a linear regression model explaining public support as a function of past values of public support (t-1) and cable news coverage (at time t and t-1). The linear models are summarized in Figure 5.
The first finding is that public support and the volume of cable news coverage are not related for the best known candidates entering the 2020 race (Biden and Sanders). However, for Warren, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg, their share of cable news coverage is contemporaneously related with their public support levels.
Figure 5: Does the Volume of Cable News Coverage Relate to Candidate Popularity?
It is also notable that these linear models explain a significant percentage of the total variation in public support, particularly for Warren, Harris and Buttigieg.
Nonetheless, in Figure 5, we still cannot talk causation as the statistically significant relationships between cable news coverage and popularity are all contemporaneous. As we learned in First-Year Statistics, correlation is not causation. Instead, we need time-ordering: When ‘X’ happens at time t, ‘Y’ happens at time t+1, all else equal.
To see the time-order effects, I estimated a vector autoregression (VAR) model using the same variables as in the linear models, but at the daily level and after a first-difference transformation to render all variables stationary. More simply, I compare the day-to-day change in cable news coverage to the day-to-day change in popularity, and vice versa.
And it is here where we finally see the causal path for Warren.
The left-hand graph in Figure 6 displays the impulse response function for the accumulated impact of a one-unit impulse in cable news coverage (1% of total cable news airtime) on Warren’s public support (% support). The graph plots the estimates over seven days subsequent to the impulse. The middle line is the estimate and the outer lines represent two standard deviations above and below the estimate.
According to the VAR model for Warren, a one percentage-point increase in her share of cable news coverage results in a 0.25 percentage-point increase in support for Warren among likely Democratic primary voters by the 3rd day after the impulse.
That may not seem like a lot, but consider that Warren’s support has grown 14 points over a six-month period (March — September) from 7 percent to 21 percent — that is an average increase of 0.08 percentage-points-a-day.
Figure 6: Response of Warren Public Support to Impulses in Cable TV Coverage
Figure 7 is similar to Figure 6, except it is the right-hand-side plot that most interesting as it displays the accumulated impact of a one-unit impulse in Warren’s popularity (1% percentage-point in RCP poll average) on changes in Warren’s cable news coverage (% of cable news airtime). According to the Figure 7, changes in Warren’s popularity on her cable news coverage hover around zero.
Figure 7: Response of Warren Cable TV Coverage to Impulses in Warren Public Support
For Warren, the causal path between public support and news coverage is recursive (i.e., moves in one direction), flowing from news coverage to public support.
And, while the effect is relatively small for any single shock in Warren’s news coverage, over a span of months the total effect can be significant, particularly if large spikes are more likely to be positive than negative — which they have been for Warren.
Since February, Warren has experienced 12 days where the spike in her cable news coverage exceeded +2 percentage-points of all cable news airtime, compared to only six times where it was less than -2 percentage-points — a two-to-one ratio. In contrast, Biden has experienced 70 instances with spikes of those magnitudes, 35 positive and 35 negative, for a one-to-one ratio. Sanders, like Biden, also has a near one-to-one ratio in positive-to-negative cable news coverage impulses.
Interestingly, like Warren, Harris has also witnessed twice as many large positive impulses as negative ones, which is consistent with a common refrain among Sanders supporters that the news media favor both Harris and Warren over Bernie. Figure 8 supports that conclusion.
FIgure 8: Number of Large Daily Impulses (“Spikes”) in Cable News Coverage between Feb. 4 to Sep 17, 2019
Manufacturing consent or evidence Warren is the best candidate?
If Warren were the “best” candidate to challenge Biden, wouldn’t we expect some causal flow from public support to cable news coverage, as that would indicate an independent basis for Warren’s growing popularity?
On the other hand, the data here is consistent with the notion that, out of practical necessity, the news media mediates the public’s exposure to political candidates. It isn’t that the media has some nefarious agenda to make one person the next president; but, rather, the reality of a geographically large country where most people learn about political candidates directly through the media or indirectly through other people that follow politics in the media.
It doesn’t require referencing the manufacturing consent thesis to explain why Warren (or Harris or Buttigieg) might gain more positive coverage in this election cycle than some other candidates that came into the election better known. They are the new kids on the block with the most big donor money coming out of the gate.
It is hard to imagine, however, cable news journalists, producers and executives doing their jobs without imprinting, in the aggregate, their collective judgments and biases into the news when deciding how much to cover some candidates over others.
Neither is it extraordinary or subversive to assert the news media introduces an inordinate amount of influence and institutional bias into the selection process. The mass media controls what most of us see and hear about presidential candidates. Unless you live in Iowa or New Hampshire, you are probably not going to meet a candidate in person during this election cycle — and certainly not going to have a long, interactive conversation with them on tax or trade policy.
And since we get our information through the mass media, it is the mass media that can make or break anybody running for president (except, apparently, Donald Trump — a media creation that got out-of-control).
As former Bill Clinton political strategist James Carville once said, “You can’t turn a frog into a prince, but you can make them president.” [Carville was not sufficiently woke in the early 1990s to add princesses to his assertion.]
Members of the national news media rarely apologize for their gatekeeper role in the presidential election process. Many journalists, in fact, believe they are the most qualified and objective to make the decisions as to which candidates should be covered extensively (Elizabeth Warren) and which candidates can be ignored (Seth Moulton — Who? — Exactly).
“To the degree that media attention causes a candidate to become more popular, there’s a winner-take-all effect here: The leading candidate will get the most coverage, boosting their lead. Meanwhile, the media has the potential to trap a candidate in last place because they can’t get the coverage they would need in order to rise in the polls,” writes Jonathan Stray, a journalist and computer scientist who teaches computational journalism at Columbia. “But what’s the alternative? Should journalists cover every candidate equally? It’s ridiculous to imagine journalists struggling to reach story quotas, so that each candidate gets the same amount of press.”
The bottom line, according to Stray, is that journalists and producers are the most logical and qualified gatekeepers to decide who gets covered and how much they are covered. They are not perfect, but they are better than the alternatives, says Stray.
There are too many anecdotal examples of cable news on-air talent offering blatantly false or misleading information about candidates — so many, in fact, that trying to summarize them here would be overwhelming.
Nonetheless, the mass media does have the power to change candidates’ fortunes, independent of other factors (e.g., debate gaffes and other unpredictable events). Elizabeth Warren may be deserving of her top challenger status, but she likely realizes she wouldn’t be in this position had the cable news networks not helped her get there.
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The following is the second of two essays about the Electoral College and the initiative to replace it with the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC). The first essays focused on arguments by the Founding Fathers in support of the Electoral College — particularly the writings of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers. The second essay focuses on the NPVIC and details some of its problems (and virtues) relative to the Electoral College and suggests a compromise system — the congressional district method — already employed in Nebraska and Maine.
The Electoral College (EC) was not embraced by the Founding Fathers as a way to encourage the broad geographic support for an elected president. Had that been the case, they would have given each state an equal number of electors.
They did not do that. Instead, they allocated electors based on population size with a small compromise to smaller states by giving them at least three electors.
Yet, today, one of the justifications for keeping the EC is that it encourages presidential candidates to pursue broad, geographically-dispersed support. Hillary Clinton’s failure in 2016 was largely due to her inability to do exactly that.
Independent of the Founding Fathers’ intentions, it is an admirable goal to expect presidential candidates to appeal across a broad section of American society and not simply win the presidency predicated on an attraction to an urban and coastal constituency. Middle America deserves a president’s attention and loyalty.
On the the hand, Middle America should never be able to hold the rest of the country hostage to its specific interests. This is the heart of the EC versus popular vote debate.
Democrats may want to reconsider eliminating the Electoral College
These two facts are often mentioned first when political scientists and commentators discuss the Electoral College: The Electoral College (EC) gives disproportionate weight to low-population states (see Figure 1), and the EC’s state-level, winner-take-all method (with the exception of Nebraska and Maine) frequently distorts the popular vote difference.
Figure 1: Population per Electoral Vote (2010 Census Data)
A third characteristic of the EC is less frequently mentioned: it is impossible for a coalition of low-population states to impose their will on the rest of the country. If every small state were to allocate their electoral votes to one candidate, that candidate would still need Washington, Virginia and New Jersey to secure an electoral victory. Those are hardly small, rural states.
Conversely, large states could impose their will on the country if California, Texas, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina and New Jersey were to stand behind the same candidate. Hopefully, it is not lost on the Democrats that they electorally dominate in four of those states (CA, NY, IL, NJ) and are highly competitive in five others (Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and North Carolina).
The irony of the current push by Democrats to abolish the EC is that, if there is a partisan advantage in the Electoral College, it is with the Democrats.
The Electoral College nurtures narrow, sectarian interests
But there are other reasons to eliminate or modify the EC, unrelated to partisan bias. The winner-take-all nature of the EC distorts state-level voter preferences and puts too high of a premium on states where the two parties are competitive (battleground states). For any given election, the number of battleground states typically varies between 10 and 15 states.
Battleground states often have their own idiosyncratic interests, independent of a common national interest (assuming that concept exists). Arguably, Trump’s trade war with China is more a function of the interests of working-class voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio than of the interests of the nation as a whole. In that sense, the EC may have contributed to current U.S. trade policy towards China.
But candidate appeals to sectarian interests occur in popular vote elections too, right? Successful politicians often offer policies and campaign promises to specific subgroups in the hope of building a winning popular vote coalition.
The difference is, in a popular vote election, every voter is as valuable as any other voter (though some are more expensive to reach or persuade than others — more on that later). At least in theory, in a popular vote election every voter is a potential target for a candidate’s coalition. In a battleground state election, most non-billionaire voters are at the outset eliminated from ever receiving serious attention from the candidates (I’m talking about states like New York and California).
Going forward, an Electoral College victory might be the only path for the GOP
In a report published last year for the Brookings Institute, Rob Griffin, Ruy Teixeira, and William H. Frey segmented the U.S. population into 32 demographic groups. Forecasting county-level compositions for these segments over time, the researchers were able to generate multiple simulations of the presidential vote in future elections (2020, 2024, 2028, 2032, and 2036) using 16 different voter turnout and support scenarios relative to 2016 (e.g., Equal turnout by race, Black turnout or support like 2012, White non-college-educated voters swing to +5 pts. to Democrats, etc.).
They had a remarkable finding for the 2020 election. Of the 16 scenarios they tested, only one resulted in the Republican presidential candidate winning both the popular vote and Electoral College (Scenario: White non-college-educated voters swing +5 pts. to Republicans relative to 2016). All else equal, according to this research, Trump needs to amp up whatever he did to attract White, non-college-educated voters in 2016. [If you follow Donald Trump at all, doesn’t it feel like that is exactly what he is doing?]
There were, however, three other scenarios where the Republicans could lose the popular vote and still win the Electoral College (EC): (a) Hispanic, Asian, and other races swing +7.5 points to Republicans, (b) white college-educated swing +5.0 points to Republicans, and (c) white college-educated swing to Democrats (+2.5D and -2.5R) while white non-college-educated swing to Republicans (+2.5R and -2.5D).
It is no surprise the Democrats are the most eager to scuttle the EC. With the likely demographic and socioeconomic changes in the future, the only way the Republicans win the White House is through the EC.
Write Griffin, Teixeira, and Frey:
“Republicans face a clear need to enhance their appeal to America’s rapidly growing communities of color — especially Hispanics and Asians. If they do not, Republicans risk putting themselves into a box where they become ever more dependent on a declining white population — particularly its older segment. As the simulations show, GOP electoral fortunes could be linked to a strategy where they repeatedly lose the popular vote but, based on larger advantages among white — particularly white noncollege-educated — voters, pull the electoral vote rabbit out of the hat anyway. This could work for a time, though ultimately it, too, would be undermined by shifting demographics. The prudent course may very well be to adapt now, rather than later, to onrushing demographic change. If nothing else, it would give the party more options going forward.”
The EC threatens the legitimacy of our nation’s highest office. We cannot weather another election like 2016 in which the perception was the winning candidate, Donald Trump, won despite losing the popular vote.
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren offered a CNN town hall audience in Jackson, Mississippi perhaps the most common argument against the EC when she told them: “We need to make sure that every vote counts…My view is that every vote matters. And the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting and that means get rid of the Electoral College.”
That’s really what this debate comes down to: The popular vote counts every vote equally and the EC does not.
If only that were true.
A national popular vote is misrepresented by its advocates
New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz mocks EC apologists when he mimics their evidence-free argument: “Abolishing the Electoral College would definitely have this bad effect, for reasons so logically sound I don’t need to provide evidence for them (even though other defenders of the Electoral College insist it would have the opposite effect, which would also be bad).”
Unfortunately, popular vote advocates aren’t much better. Beyond the intuitive logic that ‘every vote should count the same,’ they ignore the inherent problems in implementing a national popular vote when our federal system allows each of the 50 states to implement their own voting laws and procedures.
At least France, a country that employs a national popular vote to elect their president, implements uniform election laws and procedures across its 36,000 communes. The legitimacy of French presidential elections resides, in large part, to the homogeneous nature of their electoral process. The U.S. democracy lacks that essential feature.
Two aspects of a national popular vote are widely misunderstood by its proponents. For one, we’ve never had a popular vote election in this country; therefore, it is not fair to compare the popular vote with the EC result within any particular election. Hillary Clinton did not actually win the popular vote in 2016 — there was no decipherable popular vote in 2016 (or any U.S. presidential election before that).
Campaign strategies and expenditures would fundamentally change in a popular vote election. There is no better example than the 2016 election. California had no competitive statewide races between a Democrat and Republican in that election.
This matters because partisan differentials in voter turnout are affected by the presence (or lack thereof) of competitive statewide races. Unless a California Republican voter had a competitive local or congressional race to draw them into the voting booth, a higher percentage than normal of California Republicans stayed home on Election Day 2016. The data say as much.
“The Senate race in California featured two Democrats, and there wasn’t another statewide race featuring a Republican, except for president (which was a foregone conclusion). In other words, there perhaps wasn’t as much reason for Republicans to turn out to vote. Did this depress GOP turnout? Maybe. In 2012, exit polls showed Republicans were 27 percent of the state’s electorate; this year, they were 23 percent.”
Besides fundraising, the 2016 EC election offered little incentive for either Clinton or Trump to campaign in California. As money and a candidate’s time is a finite resource in any political campaign, it is a waste of resources to spend to focus on a strongly partisan state.
In a popular vote election, however, the incentives change dramatically, particularly for candidacy like Trump’s, who would have needed to shore up his support in historically strong Republican strongholds in California, such as Orange County.
As it was, Trump and the Republicans did not dedicate serious resources to California in 2016 and the state GOP suffered in the voting booth.
The second misunderstanding about the popular vote is the assumption that since every vote counts the same — that is, offers an identical benefit to a candidate — all votes must therefore be of equal value.
But as economists tell us, an item’s value is its benefit minus its cost. In a popular vote election, some votes will still be more valuable than others to a presidential candidate. Why? Because candidates pay attention to the costs associated with mobilizing and persuading voters. For example, some voters are isolated geographically, requiring significant campaign investments to mobilize them. Voters can also have strong loyalties to another party/candidate, thereby lowering the return-on-investment if a candidate wants to persuade them to defect to a different party/candidate.
While the variation in value across voters might be greater within the EC system, this variation doesn’t go away with the popular vote: Some votes will be more cost-effective to pursue.
This feature of the popular vote was revealed in 2008 research conducted by Stockholm University economics professor David Strömberg, who assessed the impact to campaign strategy if the U.S. we’re to convert to a popular vote.
Using state-level presidential election data from 1948 to 2004, Strömberg estimated the effects on campaign behavior (visits) of a direct national popular vote for president relative to a EC election and his findings are summarized in Figure 2 (below). His findings were revealing.
In Figure 2, states above 1 on the y-axis receive more than average visits per capita under the Electoral College system, whereas states to the right of 1 on the x-axis have more visits per capita than average under the Direct Vote system. Therefore, states in the lower-right-hand quadrant will most likely benefit from candidate increased attention should the U.S. adopt a popular vote system.
Figure 2: Equilibrium visits per capita and advertisements, relative to national average (Electoral College versus National Popular Vote)
One finding from Figure 2 is that a direct popular vote still results in significant variation across states in the amount of attention (visits per capita) they receive from presidential candidates, though less than under the EC.
Nevertheless, some states, such as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey, will benefit from a popular vote system. According to Strömberg, “Because of their average partisanship, these states are rarely competitive when the national election is close. Consequently, they do not receive much attention under the Electoral College system. Still, these states have quite a few marginal (swing) voters, making them attractive targets under Direct Vote.”
A popular vote election will replace the incentive for candidates to concentrate of a small set of battleground states with an increased incentive to mobilize voters where the population is highly-concentrated, particularly if includes an above average proportion of “swing” voters.
If Strömber is correct, a popular vote system may not significantly impact the amount of attention candidates pay to California, as its swing voter density is not as high as in some other areas. Instead, campaigns will prefer to use their financial resources and candidate time in areas with a higher return on investment.
The Electoral College is vulnerable to error and fraud, but the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact isn’t an improvement
The Founders did not think much of direct democracy, and even if the Republicans do operate a nominating process prone to elevating populist, heterodox candidates, it still doesn’t preclude replacing the Electoral College with something more democratic like the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC).
The NPVIC would require signatory states to cast their state’s electoral votes for the candidate who won the national popular vote, even if a plurality of their voters preferred a different candidate. The compact won’t be invoked until states with 270 electoral votes among them have opted in.
Principally advanced by Democrats in order to circumvent the long process of passing a constitutional amendment, the NPVIC has secured the support of 16 states and two more whose legislatures are likely to pass the NPVIC soon, for a total of 206 electoral votes (see Figure 2). Only 64 electoral votes more to go. Unfortunately for NPVIC advocates, those last 64 will not be easy to secure as it will require all of the remaining states that are not Republican strongholds to pass the NPVIC: Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. As of today, all have a lower and/or upper legislature controlled by the Republicans.
Figure 2: Population sizes and growth of NPVIC and non-NPVIC states
Also working against the NPVIC is its potential constitutionality, as it ‘trades away’ a person’s vote in one state based on voter preferences in other states. Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 in the Constitution places the power in allocating electors to the states (which is consistent with the NPVIC); but, the 14th Amendment (Section 2) explicitly states that when a vote is “in any way abridged,’ the state’s representation in the U.S. House (and, by extension, the Electoral College) can be reduced proportionately.
“Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the inhabitants of such State, being eighteen years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such citizens shall bear to the whole number of citizens eighteen years of age in such State.”
For example, if the majority of Florida voters vote for the Republican candidate but the Democrat wins the national popular vote, all of Florida’s 29 electors would be given to the Democrat under the NPVIC, thereby abridging the votes of roughly half of Florida voters. At risk could be half of Florida’s 29 electoral votes if a federal court determines 14th Amendment rights were violated under the NPVIC voting trading arrangement.
Adding some perspective might help before we completely upend an Electoral College that has, most of the time, worked as designed.
Since 1789, out of 58 presidential elections, only four (1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016) have produced winners in the Electoral College who received fewer popular votes than another candidate. And the 2000 election is debatable if it should be included on that list. Had Florida captured and counted votes accurately, Al Gore likely would have won both the Electoral College and popular vote in 2000.
The argument can still be advanced, however, that the Electoral College makes U.S. presidential elections prone to manipulation, by foreign or domestic sources. The 2016 election is a testament to our electoral vulnerability to small, concentrated shifts in statewide popular votes. Trump won three states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) by a total of 78,000 votes (a half of a tenth of a percent of all votes cast), shifting the Electoral College by 46 electors. A targeted shift of 39,000 votes would have changed the final outcome.
If ever there is an argument for the popular vote, isn’t that it? Well, maybe and maybe not. Where the winner-take-all nature of the Electoral College amplifies the risk for some types of vote manipulation, the popular vote invites others.
Let’s start with the best argument for why the Electoral College needs to be modified or replaced: The 2000 Florida vote. An election where George W. Bush and Al Gore were separated by 537 votes after an incomplete, deadline-constrained recount tally. We will never know the true preferences of Florida voters in that presidential race.
Not only did the vote capturing methodologies in Florida vary by county (some using the infamous “butterfly” ballots, others using “bed sheet” ballots, and still others using computer touch screens.), the recount was limited to a small set of counties and even that process was interfered with by a series of stunts and intimidation tactics by the now infamous Roger Stone of election 2016 fame.
The questionable validity of Florida’s 2000 result would have been mitigated in a popular vote election, the 537-vote difference no more than a historical footnote, forgotten within days. That is the irresistible attraction of the popular vote.
Yet, there are modifications to the Electoral College that also could avoid the 2000 Florida fiasco. For example, if presidential electors were earned based on each congressional district vote (akin to what Nebraska and Maine do today), Florida’s incompetence could have been isolated to one congressional district, not the state’s entire slate of electors.
But a popular vote might have its own problems, potentially as paralyzing and contentious as the 2000 result.
If the objective of the popular vote is to capture the precise, unbiased preferences of the voting population, its validity is already compromised if the voting methods and procedures vary across states and, within states, by counties. A national voting methodology would need to be established where state voter registration laws are uniform and vote capture, processing and tabulation standards are consistent, secure, and auditable at the voter-level.
A recount in a national popular vote election would invite chaos and threaten the election’s legitimacy
In a national popular vote election, every vote is counted and weighted the same (a good result), but each vote also becomes contestable (potentially a really, really bad result). One feature of the Electoral College is that it can handle significant amounts of error (e.g. voting machine errors, voter fraud), the 2000 election being an exception. A close vote within a single state only becomes relevant if that state’s electoral votes determines the election’s outcome.
But imagine a close, contested national election under a popular vote system where the losing candidate (or party) calls for a recount. For an instant-gratification society expecting final election results no later than the next day, it could take weeks to complete a national recount. Where one state (Florida) held up the 2000 result for over a month, a recount in 50 states (plus D.C.) could hold up a contested popular vote election for much longer. Do we recount all 140 million votes, or a selection based on fraud complaints, or do we draw a probability sample of votes? Who coordinates the process? Who makes the critical decisions during the recount?
For better or worse, the Electoral College has most likely papered over vote fraud that may have occurred over our nation’s history, in part, because we’ve rarely had presidential elections close enough to warrant much attention to its existence (the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy election being one of the exceptions; though, in that case, it is hard to distinguish myth and reality with some of the alleged stories of vote fraud from that election).
A recount in a popular vote election has other problems too. Instead of one Roger Stone trying to muck up a vote recount in a few counties in Florida, you could have hundreds of little Roger Stones trying to disrupt the recount from coast-to-coast. The presidency is too important and the incentives too great not to expect an extraordinary level of effort, above and below board, by both parties to ensure they get the outcome they want.
Campaign activities, such as ballot harvesting, introduce significant opportunities for fraud
Add one more complication to a national popular vote election. U.S. elections are implemented at the state-level. We are not France. The U.S. has never held a national election. Rather, we hold 50 different state elections — each state with its own rules and procedures.
State laws on voter registration (e.g. registration at DMV, etc.), voting methods (e.g., vote-by-mail, etc.) and the types of allowable campaign activities all vary across states. None more potentially game-changing in a national popular vote than the practice of ballot harvesting — a campaign activity in which party activists/volunteers collect absentee ballots from specific voters and drop them off at a polling place or election office.
Ballot harvesting is illegal in some states (e.g., North Carolina and Texas) and legal in others (e.g., California and on a limited basis in Arizona). Conceptually, the activity sounds harmless. Just another get-out-the-vote (GOTV) practice that facilitates voting for the elderly, chronically ill, and people otherwise unlikely to vote. What could be wrong with that? Getting more people to vote is a good thing. Evangelical Republicans in Iowa have been busing their constituents to polls for decades with barely a complaint from the Democrats. Why should picking up sealed absentee ballots cause a ruckus?
Speaking at a post-election forum soon after the 2018 midterm elections, House Speaker Paul Ryan said of the California ballot harvesting law: “California just defies logic to me. We were only down 26 seats the night of the election and three weeks later, we lost basically every contested California race. This election system they have — I can’t begin to understand what ‘ballot harvesting’ is.”
Trump lost the national popular vote to Clinton by 2,868,686 votes in 2016, but lost to her in California by 4,269,978 votes. Take away California, Trump won the popular vote in the 49 other states (plus D.C.) by 1,401,292 votes. Making it more frustrating for Republicans, as Speaker Ryan’s comments suggest, almost all of Clinton’s popular vote advantage occurred in the weeks following the Election Day tally when many of California’s absentee ballots began to arrive in election offices.
As Figure 3 shows, absentee voting has become a significantly larger element in California presidential-year elections since 2008. Absentee voting accounted for 58 percent of all California votes in 2016, up from 42 percent in 2008.
Regardless, it is not clear (at least at the presidential-level) that the increase in absentee ballots related to a greater vote share for Clinton, who received 62 percent of the California in 2016 compared to Barack Obama’s 61 percent in 2008 and 60 percent in 2012. If anything, third party candidates may have been the primary beneficiaries of the increased absentee voting in California as votes for the Republican presidential candidate fell from 37 percent in 2008 to 32 percent in 2016.
The question remains: Is ballot harvesting an effective way to boost turnout rates or a prime opportunity for ballot fraud? Most evidence points to the former. Yet, Speaker Ryan’s reaction to the practice in 2016 echoed other Republicans who were more direct, suggesting the Democrats are doing something improper. A common concern voiced about ballot harvesting is that the chain of custody for mail-in ballots does not go directly from the voter to election officials — a party activist handles the ballot a significant portion of its journey from the voter to the election office. What could go wrong with that?
In 2016, there was one notable case of alleged election fraud involving ballot harvesting. But it wasn’t a Democratic campaign operation, but a Republican one — Republican Mark Harris’ campaign in North Carolina’s 9th District (which was recently recontested because of that fraud). Among the alleged crimes included a Republican operative collecting ballots from historically Democratic areas and discarding them.
Arizona recently passed a law strictly limiting ballot harvesting after one witness testified about finding thousands of completed ballots in a Yuma garbage dumpster, and another detailed a case where poll workers did not properly label collected ballots, thereby circumventing a signature verification step as required by the law at the time. There was even reports of voter intimidation within Arizona’s Vietnamese community by ballot collectors.
In all likelihood, the Arizona law will end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Whatever the legal outcome of the anti-ballot-harvesting law, Arizona’s GOP can be forgiven for having suspicions about the fraud it invites. Their memory is still fresh over Republican Senate candidate Martha McSally losing her election-night vote lead to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema after the mail-in ballots were counted over the subsequent week.
Ballot harvesting, however, has many proponents.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla aggressively defended his state’s ballot harvesting practice to Politico after the GOP complained at how it affected many California races in the 2018 midterms: “It is bizarre that Paul Ryan cannot grasp basic voting rights protections. Our elections in California are structured so that every eligible citizen can easily register, and every registered voter can easily cast their ballot.”
“For some people, this is a question of convenience and some others are more concerned about security,” according to Wendy Underhill, the director of elections and redistricting for the National Conference of State Legislatures, who studies variations in state laws for ballot-collecting.
Large-scale ballot fraud can often be detected using various forensic techniques such as Benford’s Law, particularly when the fraud results in dramatic changes in turnout. What makes ballot harvesting problematic is not just its vulnerability to ballot fraud but its documented impact on voter turnout. If the NPVIC becomes a reality, both parties will have a strong incentive to significantly amp up their GOTV efforts.
Under a national popular vote, a voter turnout arms race will likely ensue and who knows the unintended consequences of that competition.
The Nebraska/Maine elector system should be adopted nationwide
Interest by Democrats in converting U.S. presidential elections to a popular vote is understandable, independent of Trump’s 2016 triumph. But, the NPVIC is a blunt force way of getting there and probably not going to pass enough state houses anyway.
In the meantime, before we impulsively chuck the entire EC system into the circular file in favor of a popular vote, we may want to consider other options that are less disruptive and not as exposed to unintended consequences.
The national debate largely pivots on these two objectives for U.S. presidential elections: (1) representation of the popular will, and (2) a sufficient geographic distribution of voter support to include as many sectarian interests as possible.
The most discussed alternative to the EC and direct popular vote is a method already in use in Nebraska and Maine — the congressional district method — where electors are awarded based upon popular vote totals within each of the 435 congressional districts. It is a not a direct popular vote, but it is a decent approximation. [Note: Trump still would have won in 2016 under the congressional district method.]
One virtue of the congressional district method is its compatibility with the Founding Fathers’ original intent when writing the Constitution. We don’t live in the United Peoples of America. We live in the United States of America. Spurning King Solomon’s wisdom, the Founding Fathers figuratively split the baby in half when they created a federal system where both the central government and the states share sovereignty. The EC is a 230-year-old institution borne from this compromise.
“Federalism goes beyond states’ rights and powers. Its essence is dual sovereignty — the Framers’ ingenious system of shared authority between federal and state governments with each sovereign checking the other,” writes Cato Institute ChairmanRobert A. Levy of the CATO Institute. “The purpose of that check is to shield individuals from concentrations of power. Federalism is first and foremost a device to safeguard personal freedom.”
The EC is deeply flawed and threatens the legitimacy of our nation’s highest office. We cannot afford many more presidential elections, like 2016, where the EC result differs from an inherently biased but still widely reported popular vote. A crisis of legitimacy over how we elect our president will undermine the effectiveness of the Office of the President, if it hasn’t already.
At a minimum, the EC needs to be modified to the congressional district method as soon as possible. It is too late for 2020. But a bipartisan effort to adopt this method for most, if not all, states before the 2024 election is possible and should be something both parties can agree upon for once.
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The following is the first of two essays about the Electoral College and the initiative to replace it with the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC). The first essays focuses on arguments by the Founding Fathers in support of the Electoral College — particularly the writings of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers. The second essay focuses on the NPVIC and details some of its problems (and virtues) relative to the Electoral College and offers a compromise system — the congressional district method — already employed in Nebraska and Maine.
As she has done many times in her short tenure as a U.S. Representative, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) set off a low-grade political storm last month when she followed her Instagram video declaring the Electoral College a “racist injustice breakdown” (what ever that means) with these tweets:
Ocasio-Cortez’ jeremiad against the Electoral College (EC) offers the standard rationale, as in her tweet thread’s first and fifth points concerning the over-representation of voters in small-population states and the subversion of the majority’s will. Her second point, however, is quite flawed and exemplifies much of the misinformation in circulation about the EC’s inherent biases.
The EC does not guarantee that a “handful of states” will determine the president — though, theoretically, a candidate could win the presidency winning the 11 largest states (CA, FL, GA, IL, MI, NJ, NY, NC, OH, PA, TX). But it is the Democrats who would most likely benefit from a large state coalition since they politically dominate four of the 11 largest states (CA, IL , NJ, NY) while the Republican control only two (GA, TX).
In reality, since neither party dominates the majority of large states, the EC encourages (or, rather, demands) the geographic dispersion of voter support, not its concentration, as suggested by the freshman congresswoman from New York.
With that minor disagreement notwithstanding, like Ocasio-Cortez, I also have little affection for the EC. It is an artifact of an old political compromise made by men holding deep biases against some of the political assumptions commonly held today. The Founding Fathers, by creating the EC, commingled their aversion to direct democracy with the unrepresentative nature of the U.S. Senate, itself a compromise necessary to secure support for the creation of the United States andwhich, in the legislative process, givesdisproportionate power to the least populated states.
“Since there now are a greater number of sparsely-populated, mostly-white, right-leaning states than there are heavily-populated, racially-diverse, left-leaning states, the Senate acts to preserve power for people and groups who would otherwise have failed to earn it,” laments GQ political writer Jay Willis. “A voter in Wyoming (population 579,000) enjoys roughly 70 times more influence in the Senate than a voter in California (population 39.5 million).”
Abolishing the U.S. Senate is a bridge too far admits Willis — which is why many critics of the U.S. Senate’s constitutionally enshrined status turn their ire towards the EC, an institution roughly half of American adults support replacing with a popular vote system.
However, preserving the Founding Fathers’ original intentions by keeping at least some form of the EC is worth, at a minimum, an earnest defense, even if we do eventually reform or abolish it.
It is unlikely the Founding Fathers would look at the 2016 election and think the popular vote would solve our problems
I generally resist ‘original intent’ arguments as to why any aspect of the U.S. Constitution needs to be preserved. The Founding Fathers never anticipated our present world, making it crucial that the Constitution and its Amendments be subject to judicious review when social evolution demands it. The EC has earned such a re-examination.
The Founders’ original intent in creating the EC is worth considering, in part, because most contemporary commentators fail to appreciate how distrustful the Founders were of direct democracy and its inability to solve what they considered the fundamental challenges of democracy: to stunt the formation of factions and stop the rise of men to the nation’s highest office possessing only “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity.” The EC is just one manifestation of their wariness of direct democracy.
James Madison expressed in The Federalist Papers (Federalist Paper №10 — The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection) an opinion common among intellectuals at the time regarding direct (or pure) democracy:
“…a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.”
According to Madison, with direct democracy (“one person, one vote”) follows the inevitable rise of factions and a resultant political chaos, particularly within “societies consisting of a small number of citizens.” In other words, people in relatively small groups can’t govern themselves.
But what about big groups?
Madison’s prescription was to establish “a republic…a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for (factions).” The interests of the people would be delegated to elected representatives — some elected directly (U.S. House members) and some elected by the state legislatures (U.S. Senate members until 1914).
But more interesting than Madison’s circumspection about direct democracy was his belief that representative democracy has a sweet spot at the national level where representatives should not represent too many people, nor too few.
Wrote Madison in Federalist Paper №10: “… however small the republic may be, the representatives must be raised to a certain number, in order to guard against the cabals of a few; and that, however large it may be, they must be limited to a certain number, in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude…By enlarging too much the number of electors, you render the representatives too little acquainted with all their local circumstances and lesser interests; as by reducing it too much, you render him unduly attached to these, and too little fit to comprehend and pursue great and national objects.”
However, in establishing the people’s chamber — the U.S. House of Representatives — the U.S. Constitution set no maximum as to how many people (free persons) a House member can represent, but there is a minimum as to how few they can represent.
Set forth in Article I (Section 2) of the U.S. Constitution: The number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand, but each state shall have at least one Representative.
When the U.S. House passed the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929, it fixed the number of House members at 435 (as it stands today), regardless of national population growth. Thus, while the size of a state’s U.S. House delegation depends on its population and can grow with that state’s population growth, there is a theoretical maximum of 386 House members for any given state [Imagine a world where everyone lives in California, except for one person living in each of the other 49 states].
Today, the average U.S. House member represents 750,000 people (adults and children). At the founding of the American republic, that number was about 57,000 people. By their actions, the Founders and subsequent generations of American political leaders have been more concerned about elected representatives representing too few people than too many.
That would seem to be an argument for the popular vote over the EC; after all, the President represents the common interests of 327 million Americans. Not a problem, according to the Founders, if their regard for the U.S. House is any indication.
But that is not how the Founders viewed the election of the President. Not even close.
Enter Alexander Hamilton — a skeptic about the wisdom of the masses.
In Federalist Paper №68 (The Mode of Electing the President), Hamilton explicitly rejected the idea that the selection of the President could be left to the earthly passions of the people. To the contrary, Hamilton felt the decision must be left to an exemplary set of individuals, approved by the people, but not beholden to them.
Wrote Hamilton: “It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any preestablished body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture…It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station (emphasis mine), and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.”
Hamilton didn’t believe the people, through a popular vote, could make such an important choice as President. In 1789, he was hardly alone in the opinion that a direct election of the President would make the office vulnerable to manipulation and potentially bound to sectarian interests.
“The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications,” wrote Hamilton of the EC’s virtues. “Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.”
The EC was explicitly designed to prevent someone like Donald Trump from becoming president. Were Hamilton and Madison able to join us in the present, I am certain they would look at the election of President Trump, not as a justification the popular vote, but as evidence that something else is wrong in the political system.
The Founders never intended the Electoral College to give rural America disproportionate power in the selection of the President.
Based on their writings and the actual content of Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 in the Constitution, the Founders’ central intention regarding the EC was straightforward: Its outcome — the election of a President — must be viewed as legitimate by the people.
Hamilton and Madison did not view the direct election of the President as a requisite condition for such legitimacy. Why would they? Popular sentiment in 1789 easily could have supported the ascension by decree of General George Washington as a life-time monarch.
There is also no evidence that either Hamilton or Madison (or any other participant in the Constitutional Convention of 1787) anticipated the EC results and a popular vote tally could be compared within an election. The debate within the old Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia was over what type of system to use, not running two systems simultaneously and hope both always agree as to the outcome.
Their final decision, Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the Constitution, opted for letting the states choose their electors — by a means of their own choosing — and allocating each state’s number of electors based on their numerical representation in the Congress:
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.
By using the U.S. House in the elector allocation formula, the Founders were attendant to the importance of population representativeness (despite their willingness to count almost 18 percent of the population as only three-fifths of a person). What they did not do is create a system where it would be easy for a cabal of small states, representing a minority of Americans, to wrest the presidency from the large-population states.
In the second presidential election (1792), the first presidential election with the participation by all states, 68 electoral votes were necessary to win the presidency (out of 132). If the smaller (mostly rural) states had joined in coalition, they nevertheless would have needed New York or North Carolina’s 12 electoral votes to win the presidency (see Figure 1). That can hardly be called a rural, small-state bias. In contrast, Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and New York alone — representing 46 percent of the total U.S. population at the time — could, as a bloc, determine the outcome of a presidential election.
Figure 1: The U.S. Population and Electoral College by State in 1792
If Hamilton or Madison could engage Ocasio-Cortez regarding the EC, they might address her concerns — particularly her third third point (“the Electoral College provides ‘fairness’ to rural Americans” at the presumed detriment to other groups) — with this response: There was never an intention by the Founders to give rural America disproportionate power in the selection of the President. Quite the opposite, the Electoral College was designed by elites for elites to elect other elites. Their objectives were focused on placing an additional layer of protection between the presidency and the common, easily manipulated tastes of the general masses.
From the Founders’ mindset, the election of Donald Trump was a failure of the nomination process, not the Electoral College.
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In the late summer of 1994, I walked into a small, two-story Fairfax, Virginia office in the middle of a nondescript commercial complex of converted town homes, itself residing on the edge of a middle-class residential neighborhood.
The sign in the front window — Republican Party of Virginia — was faded from sunlight exposure and severely bent on the corners. After a few unanswered doorbell rings, I just walked in through its half-opened front door. Not a soul in sight.
“Hello!” I sheepishly bellowed. No answer. I walked halfway up some musty-smelling stairs, softly issued a last ‘Hello!’ and walked back down the stairs, picking up a couple of brochures at the receptionist’s desk as I walked out.
“Can I help you?” I heard as I opened my car door to leave. A large man approached me with a striking resemblance to Sebastian Cabot (a reference only someone over 50 can visualize).
“Yes, sir,” I replied. “I’d like to volunteer for the upcoming election if you need help.”
So began my 20-year-plus defection from the Democrats to the Republicans.
Only six years earlier, I volunteered for Jesse Jackson’s second presidential campaign and, four years before that, worked as a paid staffer for then-Iowa congressman Tom Harkin’s first U.S. Senate campaign. In that same 1984 election, as a Black Hawk County Democratic delegate for Jesse Jackson, I saw first-hand how the proportion of county delegates a candidate has does not necessarily translate into the same proportion of state convention delegates.
And there I was, in 1994, on a steamy Virginia weekday morning, offering my time and effort to help people like Oliver North — who was running for the U.S. Senate against Democratic incumbent Chuck Robb — get elected.
For the next 20 years, I attended Republican precinct meetings, helped organize neighborhood fundraisers, and worked the phones for the party’s get-out-the-vote efforts. When I left the Republican Party in 2016 to work on my brother’s campaign to challenge incumbent Republican Rod Blum in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District, I felt some ambivalence.
Though never an insider for either party, as a part-time activist for over 35 years, I have developed a strong sense about each party’s organizational and cultural differences. In most cases, these dissimilarities have remained constant over variations in time and geography (Iowa, Virginia, New Jersey). These observations are not, however, necessarily a reflection of the parties’ rank-and-file supporters. And this is not a thesis on the policy differences between the two parties. The following is merely the palpable imprints the two parties left on me.
And as I now reflect on these impressions, I have come to believe some of these differences may explain why, since Watergate’s aftermath, the Republicans have won more national and state elections across this country than have the Democrats, despite the fact that public opinion across many issues has become more ‘liberal’ since 1978.
That the Republicans continue to win elections on a consistent basis cannot be explained by blessing or luck. It is more likely because the Republicans have created a leadership and activist culture organized for just one purpose: winning elections. Where the Democrats have created the world’s most sophisticated fundraising and vote harvesting apparatus in American history, the Republicans have created the most successful political party.
As to how this could happen, I turn to the three specific organizational and cultural differences I’ve observed across the two parties. This first relies a bit too much on psychoanalysis, perhaps, but I believe is the most consistent difference between the two parties since 1978.
(1) Republicans have an enduring sense of being the ‘minority’
Calling Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat to Barack Obama one of the most painful political losses in his lifetime, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh found clarity in a moment of despair as he told his radio audience the day after Obama’s re-election:“I went to bed last night thinking we are outnumbered. I went to bed last night thinking we’ve lost the country. I don’t know how else you look at this.”
Fox News’ inelegant host Bill O’Reilly was more direct: “The white establishment is now the minority.”
Republican feelings of being outnumbered did not start in 2012, however. Or in 2008 for that matter. In fact, it can be traced as far back as Richard Nixon’s first presidential term as he reacted to the growing anti-Vietnam protest movement. “And so tonight — to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans — I ask for your support,” Nixon intoned in a televised address to the nation.
But if Nixon was anything, he was a realist — laced a pinch of dark paranoia. Having won his first presidential term by a whisker’s margin, he knew any majority he might rely on politically could never be taken for granted.
Nixon’s frequent lament about his mistreatment by other political elites would contribute to his eventual downfall in the Watergate conspiracy. More broadly, many of Nixon’s personal weaknesses were imprinted onto the psyches of Republican Party’s faithful. The psychological trauma dealt to the Republican Party from the double whammy of Watergate and the inconclusive end to the Vietnam War cannot be over-estimated. Despite a relatively close presidential election in 1976, the Republican Party’s status in Congress and across the state legislatures was in descent.
Around this time, we see the rise of terms such as ‘middle America,’ ‘liberal media,’ and ‘moral majority’ — terms still heard frequently in Republican circles (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Use of terms “middle America” (green line), “liberal media” (blue line) and “moral majority” (red line) in literature since 1950.
Source: Google Ngrams
The Republicans I knew in Virginia had an “us against the D.C. political establishment” mentality. Everything, I mean everything, was working against them. To this day, my conversations with Republicans often include references to the ‘liberal media’ and ‘coastal elites.’ The news media is against them (even Fox News, according to some particularly strong Trump loyalists). Washington ‘elites’ are against them. Hollywood is against them (try to name more than one scripted TV show today that openly espouses conservative principles). Social media is against them. The public school system is against them. Academics are against them.
These laments emerged in force in the mid-1970s. The term ‘Moral Majority’ was minted by conservative religious activist Paul Weyrich from a perspective of political vulnerability, not strength. It was a defensive mobilization strategy built on a deep insecurity, heightened to toxic levels by Watergate. “We are the moral majority!” was a Republican acknowledgement of their political minority status and the electoral necessity of a coalition with like-minded Democrats and independents. In the 1980 election, many of those like-minded voters would be called ‘Reagan Democrats.’
The Republican affection for the economic aristocracy also brings with it an attendant understanding that this socioeconomic bias puts them in a definitive minority status within the electorate. Without election activities engineered to attract weak partisans and suppress enthusiasm among Democratic voters generally, the Republicans are at a serious disadvantage to the Democrats.
And, in practice, this is has been the electoral strategy of the Republican Party since Watergate. Whereas I frequently heard within the Iowa Democratic Party leadership in the 2014 and 2016 elections that all the Democrats needed to do was “get out their voters,” I don’t recall ever hearing Virginia Republican leaders uttering an equivalent sentiment. Virginia Republicans in the 1990s had endured a century of Democratic Party domination of Virginia politics. For them to think they could just turnout ‘their voters’ (as if voters are owned) would have sounded suicidal.
More importantly, the Republican’s basic approach towards the electorate, motivated by this sense of minority status, makes them a far more effective competitor on election day. Where the Democrats believe the majority of Americans already love them, the Republicans entertain no such assumption.
Any attempt to explain why Republican candidates have kept winning elections since Watergate must therefore include, if not be dominated by, an understanding of their deep sense of their own minority status.
(2) Republicans are more tolerant than Democrats of opinion diversity within its ranks
In my experience with Virginia Republicans and Iowa Democrats, I witnessed two different management styles by the party leaders that impacted how opinion differences were handled within the organizations.
In 1994, when I joined the Republican Party of Virginia (RPV), there was open warfare between upstate (D.C.-area) conservatives, who tended to be more liberal on social issues, and the downstate conservatives, who were much more conservative. The religious right had just won the RPV chair position (Patrick McSweeney) but the battle was far from being won. What left an impression with me was how the Virginia Republicans more frequently engaged in bottom-up conversations. The Republican activists and volunteers I met, many of whom were already successful professionals outside of the party, were not overly deferential towards the party’s staff and leaders. In fact, they were often dismissive of the ‘political hacks’ running the state party. The organization less hierarchical and, frankly, more democratic.
The Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) was the opposite. The party leaders were either career activists that had risen up the ranks or were from academia; whereas, the activists and volunteers were typically students or young professionals early in their careers. This made the IDP more hierarchical and affected internal dialogues which were almost always top-down and less democratic.
Strict hierarchies tend to suppress diversity of opinion within an organization; flat organizations much less so.
Still, I encounter resistance anytime I suggest to a Democrat that the Republican Party is more tolerant of opinion diversity. ‘No f**king way,’ is a common response.
But, in fact, way.
Such resistance is rooted in a common belief that intellectual nimbleness is associated with higher levels of education. In reality, this is not necessarily true — at least not when it comes to politics. According to the analytics firm, PredictWise, the most politically intolerant Americans “tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan” and lean liberal, particularly on social issues.
This finding augments research by University of Pennsylvania professor Diana Mutz, who concluded in her book Hearing the Other Side that white, highly educated people — who skew Democrat and liberal — tend not to talk with people who disagree with them — which makes the probability higher that they will stereotype those with opposing views.
Self-selection bias impacts how we organize our lives, including who we talk to on a regular basis. The more educated and wealthier we become, the more we can control that dynamic and homogenize our surroundings.
But I posit another factor behind higher levels of opinion tolerance among Republicans. Most of the Virginia Republican leaders, activists and volunteers I met were already (or had been) successful business people from the private sector. They often had MBAs or business law backgrounds and were almost always private sector oriented.
Why does that matter?
Most businesses, large or small, try to avoid politics when making contact with current or potential customers. The big companies may hire powerful Beltway lobbyists to do the dirty partisan work, but at the point-of-sale, partisan politics does more harm than good. Republican party leaders and activists understand that better than their Democratic counterparts because they are more likely to have dealt with that issue in their professional lives.
In contrast, many Democratic Party leaders and activists have only worked in academia or in the non-profit, public advocacy sector. Planned Parenthood isn’t in the business of compromising its policy message in order to appeal to a broader audience. Greenpeace activists aren’t looking for common ground with Exxon-Mobil so they can work together more effectively. The Democrat DNA is fundamentally different and inherently resistant to compromise and opinion diversity.
Again, why does this matter? Because the electoral arena has more in common with consumer brand market competition than it does to an academic symposium on immigration policy or a non-profit funded public awareness campaign. Brands are forced to adjust to market realities in ways few advocacy groups ever encounter. “A wise man adapts himself to circumstances, as water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it,” says an old Chinese proverb. A more contemporary quote comes from business author Alan Deutschman who popularized the business catchphrase, “Change or die.”
The Republican Party is powered by a different culture and mindset than the Democratic Party. It makes the GOP more flexible on issues when it matters most — at election time. Republicans are betting at adapting to changing market conditions.
This cultural difference manifests itself when looking at the prior occupations of U.S. House members in the 103rd Congress and the current 116th Congress (see Figure 2). In the 103rd Congress, 41 percent of GOP members had a business background and that would rise to 47 percent in the 116th Congress. Only 18 percent of Democrat House members had a business background in the 103rd Congress, though it has risen to 30 percent in the current Congress. The other stark difference is in those House members with a public service or political activism background. As of today, 47 percent of Democrat House members have a public service/political background, compared to only 30 percent of GOP members.
Figure 2: Occupations of U.S. House members in the 103rd Congress and the 116th Congress (House members can have multiple prior occupations)
The rise of Donald Trump is a living testament to the ability of the Republican Party and its rank-and-file supporters to embrace change and diversity. How can an evangelical Christian who abhors adultery embrace Trump? Apparently, its pretty easy when you believe you need to compromise on a candidate’s qualities in order to win elections. Does that sound like a quality commonly found among Democrats? I would say not, even if Joe Biden is still leading in the 2020 Democratic nomination race.
(3) Republicans hold themselves accountable for failure
Business people love quantitative performance metrics. They measure like their career depends on it, because if often does. And they always have that one, bottom line metric looming over them: profits.
The Republican National Committee (RNC) has a similar orientation. The party doesn’t value moral victories. The RNC cares about one metric: You either win or lose. It’s the Ricky Bobby theory of electoral politics: If you ain’t first, you’re last.
That’s why Republicans have no problem turning on themselves when their party loses an election. I wouldn’t call it introspection on their part. It’s more like, “We just lost, I need to fire somebody in this office.”
When the Republicans lost to Barack Obama in 2008, Senator John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, turned the spotlight on his entire party. “While some will want to blame one wing of the party over the other, the reality is candidates from all corners of our GOP lost tonight. Clearly we have work to do in the weeks and months ahead.”
There was little vote-shaming (i.e., blaming voters for how they voted) by Republican leaders after 2008 (though there was some of that after the 2012 election when some in the GOP pundit class blamed voters for wanting ‘more stuff.’).
After the 2012 election, the RNC commissioned an internal study to explain the election results and how the party needed to adjust going forward. The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta described the 2012 postmortem report as “an astonishingly frank document that calls for major changes in how the party addresses minorities, women, and its own campaign processes.”
No such study has ever been released by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) following their 2016 election debacle. Instead, groups outside the DNC have picked up the slack. One group, DemocraticAutopsy.org, led by Karen Bernal, a three-term Chair of the California Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus, Pia Gallegos, Chair of the Adelante Progressive Caucus of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, Sam McCann, a writer, and Norman Solomon, co-founder of RootsAction.org, produced their own report.
Unfortunately, such “independent” reports are more ideological treatises than true objective analyses — which is what the Democratic Party desperately needed after 2016.
Instead of critiquing their party’s policy and voter outreach strategies, as the Republicans did after 2012, the DNC and most Democratic leaders have blamed Russia for their 2016 loss to Trump.
Like a starving dog pack, the Republicans act collectively after electoral defeats; while, in contrast, the Democrats scurry about doing their own individual thing hoping that somehow it will all come together when the next election rolls around.
Republicans more collectivist? Democrats more individualistic? Isn’t that backwards?
Not at all.
There are many organizational and cultural characteristics distinguishing the Republicans from the Democrats. The three differences I’ve highlighted here may seem counter intuitive, which is why I believe the Democrats must acknowledge them if they are ever going to sustain any electoral success over multiple, contiguous elections.
As of today, it is the Democratic Party that shuns introspection and instead leans on undemocratic processes to push its agenda and pre-approved candidates through to its rank-and-file supporters. Underwriting this culture is the Party’s widely held belief that Democrats are the manifest majority in the U.S. and will become even more so as the country’s demographics change going forward. ‘All we have to do is turn out our voters,’ they tell themselves.
American’s electoral history is a graveyard for such hubris.
If the Democratic Party’s organizational culture doesn’t change, I predict more unexpected defeats in its future.
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At issue in the United Kingdom (UK) over Brexit — UK’s exit from the European Union (EU) — is not just whether the country should leave the EU, but the democratic status of the people vis-a-vis Parliament.
The working assumption about the UK democracy has long been that it is predicated on the concept of parliamentary sovereignty: Parliament has absolute and unlimited power.
The idea of a popular referendum supplanting the will of Parliament, even if authorized by an act of Parliament, is controversial in the UK, evidenced by the fact that only three national referendums have ever been held.
Popular referendums have never been popular among UK’s political class. When Prime Minister Winston Churchill wanted to use a referendum to extend his wartime government during World War II, Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee balked, “I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum which has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and Fascism.”
UK elites, including Margaret Thatcher in 1975, have since echoed Attlee’s admonishment of referendums.
So when the majority of UK voters (51.9%) voted on June 24, 2016 to leave the EU, more than a few observers rejected its directive as outside the bounds of parliamentary sovereignty.
“The simple answer to the question as to whether the EU referendum is legally binding is “no,” according to the Guardian’s Haroon Siddiqueln, a senior reporter.
To be binding, Brexit opponents (Remainers) argue the referendum needed to be declared so by the 2015 European Union Referendum Act authorizing the 2016 vote by the people.
“Parliament has deliberately chosen a model which does not involve any binding legal effect,” argued lawyer David Pannick before the Supreme Court in December 2016.
Supporting the No-Brexit-Exit argument, the original parliamentary briefing paper (no. 07212) sent to MPs on June 3rd — 21 days before the actual vote —stated that the “referendum is advisory only. It doesn’t bind either Parliament or the Government to act on its outcome.”
But what MPs understood about the Brexit referendum does not necessarily represent what the people understood when they placed their cross on the ballot — itself offering no indication the vote was non-binding and advisory only:
The vast mount of public opinion polling preceding the 2016 Brexit Referendum didn’t ask about the supposed non-binding nature of the referendum. Neither did the news coverage discuss it. And there wasn’t a surge around date of the referendum vote in Google searches on the term ‘Brexit’ plus either ‘non-binding’ or ‘advisory’ (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Google Searches on the Term ‘Brexit’ and either ‘Non-binding’ or ‘Advisory’
If the 2016 Brexit Referendum was a non-binding vote all along, it was a well kept secret from the people and makes the Remainers, still pushing for its nullification or calling for a re-vote, seem indifferent to the democratic principles at stake should the UK ultimately stay in the EU.
What may be defensible under UK law may still be the wrong decision in light of the message it sends to the people. There is a reason UK citizens trust politicians and government ministers the least of any profession, according to a October 2017 study by Ipsos MORI (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: UK Public Trust in Various Professions (October 2017)
In good faith, the UK went to the polls and voted to leave the EU. And instead of fulfilling the will of the majority, the Parliament and the Government have proceeded to sow chaos and partisan rancor. But it wasn’t a binding referendum, cry the Remainers, who treat democracy like its a game of Simon Says.
The anti-democratic predilection of the UK democracy is understandably discounted by the majority of its citizens. They assume their vote means what it means. If the majority of citizens want something done, they assume it will be done.
Whether Labour, Conservative, and Liberal, all UK parties have a hand in the anti-democratic debacle called the 2016 Brexit Referendum. None have risen to the moment to defend the principles of democratic governance. Direct democracy, after all, has never been supported by those in power. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison dedicated 190,000 words to piss on the idea of direct democracy in the U.S.
What has changed since then? Nothing. And the UK is even more disinterested in direct democracy.
Robert Kennedy famously said, “Democracy is messy, and it’s hard. It’s never easy.” When he made this comment, he was assuming people still believed in the general principle of majority rule. When the concept of majority rule itself is abrogated, as it has been in the UK, democracy only gets messier and its support further eroded.
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I don’t blame Bernie Sanders for his crabbiness towards The Washington Post. He cares about his national media coverage as he knows it may be the difference between winning and losing the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination.
Sanders ignited a firestorm this month when he implied The Washington Post’s less-than-favorable coverage of his 2020 presidential campaign was influenced by the paper’s owner, Jeff Bezos, the founder, president and CEO of Amazon.com, Inc.
Immediate shock, outrage and dismissive eye-rolling animated the press corps.
“(Sanders) said what he said to get a cheap applause line at a town hall packed with supporters. The problem for Sanders, Trump and politics more generally is that many of the people who hear things like this from them don’t know better,” wrote CNN editor-at-large Chris Cillizza. “They actually believe there is some sort of conspiracy between corporate America and the news media. And when politicians — whether they are Sanders, Trump or anyone else in either party — stoke that sentiment, that’s dangerous. And bad for democracy. Full stop.”
“We’ve been tracking press coverage all primary long and Sanders has consistently been at or near the top of the field in terms of the volume of news coverage he’s received,” posted Nate Silver, the editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight, on Twitter.
These are the predictable responses one can expect from the national media when someone accuses them of systematic editorial bias.
Sanders, however, was wrong to suggest Jeff Bezos, or anyone connected to corporate Amazon.com, would intervene to impact WaPo editorial decisions. It just doesn’t happen that way.
The common interests of journalists and political elites drive the news media’s coverage of political candidates. They are alone a sufficient condition to power any conspiratorial-looking editorial process dedicated to helping one set of political candidates over others.
It doesn’t require late-night calls using anonymized cell phones or encrypted emails across secured networks. Journalists and politicians simply need a shared motivator to engineer an organic, successful, and legal conspiracy.
Perhaps ‘conspiracy’ is the wrong word for it. It is more like a confederacy built around an informal covenant. Members may not have secret handshakes, but they learn of their shared interests by going to the same schools, living in the same neighborhoods, attending the same parties.
The national news media and the Washington, D.C. political elite belong to the same club — a clique where you need to be invited, of course. Sorry, President Trump, your membership application has been misplaced. And, apparently, the membership renewal forms have been rejected for Hawaii House member Tulsi Gabbard and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. They were once members in good standing. But not now.
The Systematic Bias of the National News Media is Undeniable
Recently, Michael Tauberg, an engineer by day and data journalist at night, published data on the tone of online news coverage for each of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates from January to April 2019.
Figure 1 (below) shows the average news story sentiment for the major Democratic candidates. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, former Texas US House member Beto O’Rourke and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar received the most positive news coverage over that period. More interesting are the candidates at the bottom: Gillibrand and Gabbard.
Figure 1: Average Sentiment of Coverage from Liberal News Sources
What exactly did Gillibrand and Gabbard do to earn so much negative coverage? Gabbard’s unforgivable offense to the political/media establishment is well documented. Rolling Stone magazine’s Matt Taibbi lays out a few reasons for why the establishment shuns Gabbard. She hates regime change wars and holds the Democratic Party — and the Obama administration, in particular — partially responsible for these never-ending conflicts. Gabbard hits the Democratic Party where it feels most vulnerable to the Republicans: national security issues. The fact Gabbard single-handedly stunted Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign momentum in late-February 2016 by resigning from a Democratic National Committee leadership position and endorsed Bernie Sanders did not help her status within the party establishment either.
But what about Gillibrand?
Her heresy is pure political insider stuff. She embarrassed former President Bill Clinton (and his wife) when she suggested Bill should have resigned for having an affair with a young intern.
Responding to Gillibrand’s admonishment, the former president told CBS News: “You have to — really ignore what the context was. But, you know, she’s living in a different context. And she did it for different reasons.”
That was Bill saying Gillibrand said what she said for purely political reasons. In other words, she’s no longer a FOB (Friend of Bill’s). If the Clintons are consistent on anything, it is punishing those who are disloyal; and Gillibrand, who they hand-picked for the New York Senate seat Hillary vacated when she became Secretary of State, has never been welcomed back into the Clinton or party establishment fold.
This becomes even more apparent in Tauberg’s analysis of news headline sentiment (see Figure 2). No other 2020 Democratic candidate possesses an average headline sentiment score as strongly negative as the scores for Gabbard and Gillibrand. Their outsider status is quantifiable and it won’t be easy for either to rise within this crowded field of candidates if their media coverage does not turn more positive.
Figure 2: Average Sentiment of Headlines from Liberal News Sources
But do Gabbard and Gillibrand deserve this level of negativity from the national news media? More importantly, who makes that decision? What objective editorial standard is in play that says these two candidates are going to hammered (or ignored) by our news outlet, while this candidate is going to get a far more positive treatment.
All candidates have strengths and weaknesses. Short of a candidacy by someone like David Duke or Richard Spencer, it is seems reasonable that an objective news organization would balance the tone of its coverage for all candidates, even if more popular candidates may get proportionately more coverage than less popular candidates.
But the Tauberg data shows how unbalanced the coverage has been through April with the 2020 Democratic race. The candidate differences in Figures 1 and 2 are not the product of chance — they are the product of an overtly sectarian and discriminatory editorial process.
CNN’s Chris Cillizza and members of the national news media ask us to believe those decisions are based purely on objective considerations by the journalists and editors themselves. The mere suggestion by Sanders that a corporate owner of a newspaper or broadcast news network could impact editorial content is universally mocked by those in the industry.
Responding to another opinion journalist’s criticism of corporate news decisions, MSNBC contributor Jason Johnson asks, “Do you actually think that network and site owners waste their time micromanaging a writer’s opinions? Or is that just some stuff you throw out because it hypes up your fans? I’ve never had anybody, on any outlet I’ve ever worked for even bother.”
There is an answer to Johnson’s first question and it is called ‘self-editing.’ Every writer of import does it — consciously and subconsciously. Writers know what their editors, readers and owners like to read, or at least the successful ones know.
Has Johnson not noticed writers and political analysts sometimes are around one day and gone the next on MSNBC? Has he asked himself why he doesn’t see Krystal Ball around the office as much anymore? [Krystal is now an anchor on The Hill’s TV news podcast Rising with the Hill’s Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti — an excellent morning program, by the way.]
The owners of major news outlets don’t micromanage because they hire people to do that. And the most important editorial control is not done at the micro-level anyway, it is done at a macro-level through the hiring and firing decisions by middle and upper management. In just the past twenty years, MSNBC has gone through at least two substantial ideological shifts. It was a mostly non-partisan, straight news organization in the late 1990s, but shifted to the progressive (anti-Fox News) left in the early-2000s with show hosts such as Phil Donahue, Dylan Ratigan, and Ed Schultz, only to turn into an establishment left news organization in the early 2010s with hosts such as Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews.
Driven more, perhaps, by ratings than any ideological predilection on the part of its ownership, MSNBC is not atypical of other national news outlets. It is a corporate news organization guided by corporate necessities (i.e., advertising revenue and profit). That causal model systematically and inescapably alters the news content, largely in favor of advertiser and corporate interests. Lockheed Martin budgets a lot of advertising dollars each year and they are not going to use their money for underwriting spots on Democracy Now or Redacted Tonight. It just doesn’t work that way.
Changes in cable news coverage can change candidate support — but is it predictable?
Every political campaign I’ve worked on had a candidate and staff that complained incessantly about their campaign’s news coverage. One nasty news story could get a reporter barred from future interviews. But what candidates and campaign managers feared most — more than being on the receiving end of a negative story — was getting ignored by the media. Nothing kills a campaign faster than not being covered. Advertising and door-knocking can help build name recognition and promote a candidate’s core messages, but the credibility and visibility conveyed to a campaign through a national news media filter is irreplaceable — even in the age of social media.
How do we know news media coverage matters? We will need data.
The following is a very preliminary look at this question regarding news media influence on political candidate support. Using APIs to query a GDELT Project database on daily cable TV news coverage from January 4 to August 6, 2019, and downloading Democratic nomination polling data from RealClearPolitics’ data repository, I conducted a time-series analysis (vector autoregression) to determine whether or not changes in the volume of a candidate’s cable news coverage causes changes in a candidate’s popular support.
Spoiler alert: Changes in the volume of cable news coverage causes changes in candidate popularity, but the effect size is small.
First, let us look a how candidate support has varied since January (Figure 3). Of the five major candidates, they all received a significant popularity bump from the point of their candidacy announcement. In general, the surge in popularity lasted about a month and ranged in magnitude from 15 points for Sanders to 9 points for Buttigieg.
Warren is an outlier in that her popularity rise has been gradual and did not include a steep increase after her February 9th announcement; and, unlike the other four candidates, Warren has not suffered a significant decline from an announcement-related high — in fact, she has gained around 10 points. In contrast, Biden has seen his support decline from around 42 percent down to 30 percent. Sanders, similarly, has lost around 12 points from his March high, Harris 5 points and Buttigieg only about 2 points.
Warren may be the tortoise in a race full of hares.
Figure 3: Democratic Candidate Support since January 4, 2019
One other notable feature is the 8-point surge Harris experienced after the first debate where she challenged Biden on his position regarding forced busing. However, her lift from that debate has all but evaporated since the second debate when Harris was confronted by Gabbard over Harris’ law enforcement record while the California Attorney General.
Turning to cable news coverage, there is more day-to-day variation in the volume of coverage for candidates, particularly around specific events such as Biden’s late-April candidacy announcement and around the two debates (see Figure 4). Another interesting feature is how Warren and Sanders mentions, starting in late-May, is now moving in near perfect lock step fashion. The reason for this strong correlation are the two dominant narratives being employed by both MSNBC and CNN during this period: The first focused on whether Warren’s rise is stunting any further rise in Sanders’ support. The second focused on Warren and Sanders defending their progressive policy ideas, particularly on their ability to fund them.
Figure 4: Democratic Candidate Cable News Mentions (as % of all mentions) since January 4, 2019
As yet, I’ve offered no evidence that candidate support and cable news coverage are causally linked. And that causal linkage, if it exists, may be non-recursive and going in both directions — a candidate’s rise in popularity may inspire more news coverage, and a rise in news coverage may increase a candidate’s popularity.
Before formally crunching the numbers, a visual inspection of how cable news coverage moves relative to candidate popularity might be helpful. I’ll focus on Mayor Buttigieg for two reasons: there are clear periods where his popularity and news coverage move together, while other periods where they seem to move in opposite directions (I’ve included charts for all five candidates in the Appendix below, Tables A.1 to A.5).
Figure 5 shows Buttigieg’s dramatic surge in support occurred at the same time as his cable news mentions increased. To only the most hardcore politicalphiles was the name Buttigieg familiar before the 2020 campaign. By the time of his April 14th announcement, he was near his campaign highs in both popularity and cable news coverage. But it is not obvious from Figure 5 if popularity causes news coverage or the other way around (or in both directions).
Figure 5: Buttigieg Support and Cable TV News Mentions
Since his mid-April highs, he has experienced significant declines in both variables, except for a period just after the first debate when his cable news mentions surged a second time. Another important period is between June 20th to 30th when Buttigieg’s cable mentions rose steeply even as his popularity was in steep decline. The negative turn was most likely a product of his city, South Bend, dealing with a June 14th police shooting where a Black man had been killed by a white police officer. Buttigieg’s appearance before a public hearing on the incident did not go well, according to many observers.
What this episode demonstrates is that any model of support and news coverage may require an interaction term or independent variable measuring the tone of coverage. Unfortunately, I am still working on generating a sentiment analysis of cable news stories for inclusion in a future analysis.
With that methodological caveat, any causal relationship I might find between popularity and news coverage here is likely going to be an underestimate of the true relationship. Research is, after all, an iterative process.
Feel free to skip to ‘The Results’ section if you don’t want the details on the statistical methodology.
The Statistical Method
Noble Prize winner in economics, Clive Granger,defines a relationship between two variables as causal (X1 Granger-causes X2) if prior changes in X1 predict future changes in X2, independent of past values in X2 and while controlling for other potential causal factors.
A common statistical method for testing for Granger-causality is vector autoregression (VAR). The beauty (and limitation) of this technique is that it makes few assumptions about the causal relationships between variables. Hence, these models often devolve into ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ specifications that eat up degrees of freedom (which are typically precious, particularly for the analysis here which has only 215 cases to work with).
Due to these issues, it is often recommended that VAR models be employed during the initial model and theory-building stages and that more explicit, theoretically-informed statistical models be used in the final analytic stages (e.g., dynamic Bayesian networks).
For my purposes, VAR is more than adequate to uncover the basic causal relationship between news coverage and candidate popularity.
The VAR models estimated here for popularity (Y) and volume of news coverage (X) specify a p-order = 7, which means the ten models (two models for each candidate) looks back 7 days to assess the relationship between Y and X. All variables were measured at the daily level and smoothed using a 7-day moving average. The variables were also differenced in order to meet VAR’s stationarity requirement. This means we are, in fact, testing whether changes in X cause changes in Y and vice versa.
The bottom line up front:For three of the five candidates (see Figure 6), increasesin their volume of cable news coverage caused small but significant increases in candidate popularity. Also, for three of the five candidates, increases in candidate popularity caused small but significant increases in the volume of their cable news coverage.
Figure 6: Summary Table of VAR Model Estimations
Using Buttigieg again as our highlighted case, the VAR model predicting popularity has a model fit of R-squared = 0.71, compared to an R-squared = 0.39 for the news coverage model. This general pattern is consistent for all five candidates. However, not shown in Figure 7, the inclusion of news coverage volume added very little new information in explaining candidate popularity, as the R-square for all models only fell by 2 to 4 percentage points when news coverage was excluded from the model. This gives me great pause in suggesting news coverage is a dominant predictor of candidate support. Visually, we can see the some causal relationship is there, but, statistically, it still looks like just one actor in a much larger drama.
Figure 7: Summary of VAR Model Fits
One of the most informative outputs generated from a VAR model is what is called an Impulse Response Function (IRF) graph. An IRF describes the changes in the dependent variable along a specified time horizon after a one-unit shock in the independent variable. Both variables — candidate popularity and cable news mentions — are measured as percentages and theoretically range from 0 to 100 (variable summary statistics can be found in this project’s Github depository as part of the VAR output).
Buttigieg will once more be our exemplar.
Figure 8 indicates that a one percentage-point increase (shock) in cable news mentions of Buttigieg leads to a 0.40 percent increase in his popularity four days after later. No other lag parameters are significant in the Buttigieg model (that is, the confidence intervals include zero). That change in popularity might not seem like a game-changer, but cumulatively that translates into a nearly 1.5 percentage-point increase in popularity over 8 days. For a candidate whose support drifts between 4 and 9 percentage points, that is significant shift.
Figure 8: Impulse Response Function: 1-unit Shock in Cable News Coverage and Changes to Candidate Popularity over 8-day period (Buttigieg)
Yet, without a measure of the tone of a candidate’s news coverage, the true dynamic between news coverage and candidate popularity is probably under-stated in the analysis here. As Buttigieg’s case makes clear, there are times when even a popular candidate with the news media will need to weather negative news coverage that will hurt his or her standing in the polls. That dynamic must be directly modelled.
My next step will be in further developing and capturing a tone/sentiment measure for news coverage. Presumably, this will significantly improve the model of candidate popularity.
Perhaps the most interesting candidates in this analysis are Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris. There was little evidence of any causal relationship between their volume of cable news coverage and their popularity. It doesn’t surprise me that Sanders doesn’t even get a meager lift anymore from positive news coverage. It does surprise me that Kamala doesn’t. Just a visual inspection of the relationship between her popularity and her cable news mentions reveals what appears to be a strong (positive) relationship between the two (Figure 9).
Figure 9: Candidate Support and Cable TV Coverage (Harris)
Harris has three major spikes in cable TV news mentions. The first occurred soon after her candidacy announcement on January 21st — which was mapped closely by a surge in support. One interesting feature of this first surge is that the support level peaked about one week after the peak in cable news mentions. Buttigieg’s chart showed a similar dynamic (see Figure 5 above). Harris’ second cable news mention surge occurred after her first debate performance and was, again, mapped closely by a popularity surge. What is different from the first surge is that the peaks of both mentions and popularity occurred contemporaneously — most likely because the debate was widely watched on television and its impact on popularity more immediate.
Harris’ third cable news mention surge occurred after the second debate but did not witness the simultaneous positive movement in popularity, the reason fairly obvious — the second debate was not a good performance by Harris.
Looking at the charts for all of the major candidates (Figures A.1 to A.5 in the Appendix) makes one thing clear — the dynamics between cable news coverage and candidate popularity varies by candidate and can change over time within each candidacy. Campaign events (e.g., debates), gaffes (Biden is one of the candidates after all), and random shocks (e.g., the economy, mass shootings, the border crisis, the Middle East conflicts, etc.) add a level of randomness and unpredictability that no statistical model, no matter how well specified, can fully anticipate.
This preliminary look at the common daily variations in cable news coverage and candidate popularity — a two-variable model — does not come close to capturing the full complexity of a real world presidential campaign. There are many other factors in a campaign that affect candidate popularity: endorsements, advertising, social media, online news, Google searches, campaign rallies, retail politicking, etc.
We want to believe the news media, as one of the primary gatekeepers through which campaigns try to get information to the general public, is as powerful as the news media itself assumes. No doubt, the struggle of Tulsi Gabbard and Kirsten Gillibrand to get their messages to the voting public is hindered by systematic negative news coverage (or, worse, no news coverage at all). The Tauberg news sentiment data supports the contention that the national news media systematically favors some candidates over others and can crush (or lift) small, outsider campaigns if they so choose.
The news media will argue that is part of their job. If they don’t do it, who will? Voters can’t digest 21 different candidates. The field needs to be whittled down to a more manageable number and the news media is more than happy to provide that service.
“Somewhere, somehow, professional journalists have to decide who gets covered — and any formula they could choose is going to appear biased to someone,” says Columbia University journalism professor Jonathan Stray. “In the end, the candidates who attack the media are right about one thing: The press is a political player in its own right. There’s just no way to avoid that when attention is valuable.”
But the question remains, is the corporate news media an unbiased, neutral party in this process or does it play favorites? Bernie chooses the latter conclusion. I lean that way as well, but I am still surprised at how sketchy the data remains showing a strong causal arrow from the national news networks to candidate popularity.
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Medicare-4-All was the discriminating issue in the last two Democratic debates with Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren the most vocal proponents and the remaining candidates (less Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio) taking up the opposition.
To likely Democratic primary voters watching the two debates, Elizabeth Warren’s performance was particularly strong — though Tulsi Gabbard’s Cool Hand Luke impersonation offered us the best moment from either debate when she calmly exposed Senator Kamala Harris’record as California Attorney General as incompatible with her presidential stump speech rhetoric. How could Kamala have been so unprepared to defend her own record?
However, most striking about the debate were the candidates relying on historically conservative talking points to dismiss not just Medicare-4-All, but the Green New Deal and college debt forgiveness, among other progressive policy priorities. At one point during the debate, my wife asked if Republicans were also being included in the debate. “No, honey. John Delaney is a Democrat.”
The Twitter accounts of these “Democrats” croon love poems to private insurance companies, market capitalism and ‘choice,’ while mixing in enough disinformation about progressive ideas to truly confound anyone trying to understand the disputed issues.
This is how they talk about Medicare-4-All:
The Republican National Committee couldn’t have written Tweets as dishonest as those about Sanders’ Medicare-4-All plan — a plan a Koch Brother-funded think tank concluded would reduce total U.S. health care spending by about $2 trillion over 10 years, relative to the current healthcare system. That is likely an under-estimate of the savings from Medicare-4-All.
A note to Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Tom Perez and the Democratic National Committee: You know your party is out of energy and ideas when the talking points for some of your leading presidential candidate could pass for something Bill O’Reilly might write:
If you don’t believe our country can afford universal healthcare for all or that we can get off fossil fuels sooner rather than later, you are not a Democrat anymore. You are a Republican. Which is fine. There is a party for that.
There is nothing wrong with Republicans running as Democrats and Democrats running as Republicans (though I cannot think of a single example in my lifetime of the latter happening…John Anderson in 1980?).
Who has the right to tell anyone what party they should belong to. This is a democracy after all? Right?
Who is driving the Democratic Party train?
Years ago, the first assignment I gave undergraduate students in my introductory political science classes was to describe, in a short paragraph, how the American democracy works.
The students’ paragraphs were earnest, typically focusing on voters and elections and describing a system where people’s policy preferences are reflected, if only loosely, in the policies passed by their elected representatives. Most of the students’ paragraphs were held aloft with Jeffersonian/Madisonian language (‘all people created equal,’ ‘liberty,’ ‘consent of the governed,’ ‘freedom’) and mixed with a healthy dose of American exceptionalism (‘the freest country in the world’).
But there would always be at least one student that would write something along these lines:
We don’t live in a democracy. The corporations pick the candidates and the government reflects corporate interests.
No, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez was never in one of my classes — She was a toddler when I taught at the university-level.
As a young instructor, I felt a duty to guide students away from cynical views on our democracy and towards something realistic, but also optimistic. In one the class slides I provided a definition of democracy by which to judge the American version:
A government, existing at the consent of the people, who, through elected representatives, satisfy these conditions: (1) Full participation — all citizens are included in the political system and have the capacity to participate, (2) Voting equality — each citizen’s vote is equal to another’s, (3) Full knowledge of choices — citizens understand all available political choices, (4) Popular agenda control — citizens control the political agenda.
The paragraph was just a reformulation of political scientist Robert Dahl’s definition of an ‘ideal’ democracy from his 1989 book, Democracy and Its Critics. As an exemplar, no democracy could meet Dahl’s idealized version, and that was his point. All democracies are imperfect, some more so than others.
My conclusion at the time was the American democracy, while flawed, fulfilled all four of those observable conditions.
Over the years, however, my views have crept closer to the cynical view, perhaps to an even darker place. And nowhere has my own cynicism grown darker than when observing the corporate news media’s current role in the democratic process.
The recent Democratic debates are illustrative. In the July 31st debate sponsored by CNN, former Vice President Joe Biden spoke for 22.5 minutes, Senator Kamala Harris for 17 minutes, and Senator Cory Booker for 13 minutes. The other seven candidates each spoke between 9 and 11 minutes. These differences are not products of chance. The debate was designed by CNN to give the top 2 or 3 candidates — in terms of polling numbers — the most face time with the 11.3 million Americans viewing the debate. Campaigns will pay around $200,000 for only 30 seconds on a national cable TV network. In essence, CNN gifted Joe Biden about $4.5 million in advertising and to Harris about $2.5 million.
Lesser known presidential candidates already struggle to gain traction with voters and donors. By tilting the process towards the “popular” candidates, CNN is effectively enforcing an Overton window among political candidates.
The cable news media’s sentinel role is apparent when looking at its coverage of the 2020 Democratic nomination candidates over the first seven months of the race (see Figure 1). Over that period, Biden has received 35 percent of all candidate mentions, followed by Sanders (15%), Warren (12%), and Harris (11%). A significant drop-off occurs after that, as almost three-quarters of mentions go to the top four candidates. That may be the maximum number candidates a news network can handle at one time.
Figure 1: Weekly cable news clips from Dec. 30, 2018 to July 21, 2019 (28 weeks).
A different relationship exists for online news candidate mentions (see Appendix Figure A.1), as there is no clear leader and the top four candidates are more bunched together. Over the same seven-month period, Sanders received 15 percent of all candidate mentions, followed by Warren (14%), Biden (14%), and Harris (11%).
Is it wrong for cable news networks to be political gatekeepers? Isn’t that one of the core functions of the press? Who wants to learn about John Delaney or John Hickenlooper or Michael Bennet if they don’t need to?
There is a strong argument rooted in microeconomic and decision theory literature that journalists should be filtering out minor candidates and focus their reporting on more viable ones. There are over 20 Democratic candidates, after all. We can’t possibly get to know every one of them with any meaningful depth. The cable networks are providing a genuine service when they ignore some candidates and direct their attention towards others.
“Somewhere, somehow, professional journalists have to decide who gets covered — and any formula they could choose is going to appear biased to someone,” concludes journalist Jonathan Stray. “In the end, the candidates who attack the media are right about one thing: The press is a political player in its own right. There’s just no way to avoid that when attention is valuable.
Yet, why don’t I trust the cable networks and now the high tech and social media companies to make these decisions?
I think back to my most cynical students. How can we defend a democratic system that systematically marginalizes voices outside the mainstream? Perhaps wedon’t live in a democracy. Perhaps the corporate news organizations really are the ones picking our presidential candidates and Election Day is simply a tool to legitimize the their choices.
An over-simplification? Obviously. Wholly inaccurate? I think not. And is this power restricted to the corporate news media? Absolutely not, as the high tech and social media giants also have become active participants in the American electoral system and evidence of their power is rapidly being documented by researchers.
Is Google already too powerful?
Speaking at New York City research summit in January 2013 organized by Google, Robert Epstein, a Harvard Ph.D. in psychology and behavioral sciences, said, “Google has likely been determining the outcomes of upwards of 25 percent of the national elections worldwide since at least 2015.”
The same academic, testifying in mid-July before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, said that Google’s search algorithm produces a Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) which likely changed vote decisions among undecided voters in 2016 to the net benefit of 2.6 million votes for Hillary Clinton. Looking towards the 2020 election, Epstein testified:
“SEME…leaves people thinking they have made up their own minds, which is very much an illusion. It also leaves no paper trail for authorities to trace. Worse still, the very few people who can detect bias in search results shift even farther in the direction of the bias, so merely being able to see the bias doesn’t protect you from it. Bottom line: biased search results can easily produce shifts in the opinions and voting preference of undecided voters by 20 percent or more — up to 80 percent in some demographic groups.”
Skepticism is always advisable before accepting social science findings, but shouldn’t the burden of proof be on Google, rather than social scientists, to show that the SEME does not systematically alter election outcomes? Can you imagine if pharmaceutical companies were allowed to market drugs to the public before doing research on their safety? No, of course not. So, why should the standard be different for Google or the giant social media companies?
But before we go to Mountain View, California, breaking down the doors at Google headquarters to seize their search algorithms — which we should do at some point — let us not forget the older and probably bigger dog in this fight…television news, particularly the cable networks (CNN, MSNBC and Fox News).
Political science research has generally found that national news outlets are powerful actors in shaping our political environment (Summaries of this research can be found here, here, here and here). Not only do the media expose us to events and people we would not otherwise experience directly, they frame and interpret the political world for us as well — and that may be their greatest influence on our political system: Frame the policy agenda and change the electoral outcome.
But don’t take academia’s word for the importance of the news media on politics — just ask Jeff Zucker, president of CNN, about his news network’s role in the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
While stopping short of saying CNN unduly influenced the 2016 election outcome, in a 2018 CNN interview with former Barack Obama adviser David Axelrod, Zucker admitted his network televised too many Trump election rallies unfiltered and in their entirety. No other 2016 candidate was gifted so much free publicity — some estimates indicate Trump received a $1 billion advantage over Hillary Clinton in free media coverage. More certainly, Trump’s challengers for the 2016 Republican nomination never had a chance to gain traction with voters as long as CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News kept broadcasting Trump rallies live (see Figure 2). In another study, researchers found that CNN, specifically, provided Trump with eight times as much coverage as the number two candidate in the 2016 Republican nomination race, Ted Cruz.
Figure 2: Bought versus Free Media in the 2016 Presidential Election
“I do not believe that’s why he’s president of the United States,” Zucker told Axelrod. “A lot of people want to assign that blame to us and to me. If only we had that much power, especially on the Republican side. I do not believe that’s why he’s president of the United States. But I do think we made a mistake.”
Zucker is being too modest. Along with MSNBC, headed by Zucker’s former understudy, Phil Griffin, CNN showered Trump with attention from the moment Trump came down the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy. They may not have realized what they were doing — in part, because many at the news networks believed Trump was more of a sideshow than a serious presidential candidate — but by the time it became apparent Trump had a punchers chance of winning the presidency over Clinton, the damage had been done.
In an interview with TheWrap.com last year, media critic Stephen Miller said, “There is no figure in media more responsible for Donald Trump’s legitimacy in media, which led to his rise in politics and to the presidency, than Jeff Zucker.”
And you thought the Russians and their $100,000 Facebook advertising buy elected Trump.
Candidate popularity and cable news coverage move in lock-step
A cross-sectional analysis of recent data from RealClearPolitics’ presidential poll databases, cable news content (i.e., candidate mentions) from the GDELT project, and Google search trends data reveals the strong relationship between the cable news media and candidate popularity. And we also see evidence of a relationship between candidate popularity and Google search trends. This first relationship is not news. Data journalist pioneer Nate Silver and other researchers have measured the strong relationship between cable news and candidate popularity.
In my 2020 Democratic nomination data, cable news coverage of candidates explains 95 percent of the variance in average levels of support between Dec. 30, 2018 and July 21, 2019 for the 12 candidates in my dataset (see Figure 3). All candidates are near the regression line — the only exception being Sanders who over performs in popularity given his level of cable news coverage. One explanation for that could be that Sanders is a known quantity given his 2016 presidential run and the news media doesn’t find him as ‘newsworthy.’ However, Biden is perhaps even better known than Sanders, yet his news mentions and public support level are well explained by the regression model. Sanders is most likely different for reasons other than just name recognition.
Figure 3: Cable TV news coverage and Democratic candidate popularity
In contrast, Google search volume, while highly correlated with candidate popularity (see Figure 4), does not offer any new information regarding candidate support. When both cable news mentions and Google searches are included in the same regression model as explanatory variables, only cable news mentions maintains statistical significance (see Figure A.3 in the Appendix below). Google search volume also appears to have a diminishing return on candidate popularity as a search volume’s relative index approaches 100 (its maximum possible value for any single candidate).
Figure 4: Google search volume index and Democratic candidate popularity
Interestingly, Google search volume on candidate names generates a divergent candidate ordering from the amount of cable/online news coverage a candidate receives (see Appendix Figure A.2). Since late-December 2018, Biden has received 19 percent of all candidate name searches on Google, followed by Harris (15%), Sanders (14%), South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (11%) and Senator Beto O’Rourke (10%). New candidates receive relatively more attention on Google than they do within the news media.
It is important to note that my data cannot tell us much about the direction of causation. Is media coverage causing candidate popularity? Or is candidate popularity driving media coverage? The answer is likely that both statements are true, which could explain why the correlation between the cable news coverage and popularity is is so strong. As a candidate becomes more popular, the cable news media adjusts their own coverage to meet the apparent public demand. Similarly, a candidate’s popularity can rise dramatically when cable news dedicates its coverage to a relatively unknown candidate —Mayor Buttigieg is a good example.
We haven’t even mentioned the role of big donors within the Democratic Party. Harris famously courted Hillary Clinton’s mega-donors in the Hamptons in Summer 2017, a time when she was relatively unknown nationwide. Any understanding of the nomination process cannot ignore where the money comes from and the expectations that follow.
“Maybe Harris has what it takes and will surge ahead of the pack in a few years to win the right to dethrone Donald Trump,” The Guardian’s Ross Barkan wrote two years ago. “It’s too early to tell. But her Hamptons gallivant with Clinton plutocrats is a dispiriting reminder that the Democratic party thinks all can be as it once was, and the status quo isn’t worth being ruffled. Donors can still vet candidates and propel them forward in the press. Anyone beyond the upper crust isn’t a serious agenda setter.”
It is no longer too early to tell. Yes, mega-donors can create viable presidential candidates at a brie and Chablis-filled party nestled in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in America. Would we be talking about Harris now if the Democratic Party’s donor class hadn’t sanctioned her run? Of course not.
Should we be worried?
I refuse to contribute to the angst industry, so forgive me if I am not worried about Google now, or in the future, controlling our political system. Google picking our president is no more or less loathsome to me than CNN doing it. Cloistered elites have been picking U.S. presidential candidates since the country’s inception — why would it change now?
Still, the possibility of Silicon Valley tech czars deciding who gets access to the nuclear launch codes should not sit well with anyone. Do we resign ourselves to the notion that voters are just ancillary participants, by the Founders’ design or due to their own human limitations, in a political system where their role is more adjunctive than substantive? Are we mere driftwood being carried along in the political currents?
A 2014 study I’ve cited many times remains my bedrock evidence when arguing that the U.S. is not a democracy if the policies passed by our representatives don’t reflect our collective interests. The study by political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern has its critics (as it should), but the daily anecdotal evidence only strengthens its core finding: “When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy,” concluded Gilens and Page.
As Johns Hopkins associate professor Yascha Mounk wrote in The Atlantic, “Public policy does not reflect the preferences of the majority of Americans. If it did…Marijuana would be legal and campaign contributions more tightly regulated; paid parental leave would be the law of the land and public colleges free; the minimum wage would be higher and gun control much stricter; abortions would be more accessible in the early stages of pregnancy and illegal in the third trimester.”
At the risk of blaming the victim…
We live in a technology environment that deliberately herds news consumers to a relatively small set of news sites, despite consumers having — theoretically — hundreds of news websites from which to choose. In the process, voters have grown more partisan and less tolerant of alternative points of view.
Regina Lawrence, executive director of the University of Oregon’s Agora Journalism Center and George S. Turnbull Portland Center, cites citizens’ own selection bias as an important factor in the polarization trend. “Selective exposure is the tendency many of us have to seek out news sources that don’t fundamentally challenge what we believe about the world,” according to Lawrence. “We know there’s a relationship between selective exposure and the growing divide in political attitudes in this country. And that gap is clearly related to the rise of more partisan media sources.”
However, search engines like Google also contribute to this cycle by reinforcing people’s news consumption patterns through their profiling algorithms (i.e., your Google search history impacts what you see every time you use Google).
It doesn’t need to be this way and the best place to start changing that dynamic is by regularly putting ourselves in a position to hear perspectives much different from our own. Don’t use Google every time you search for news stories or information. Other search engines exist, such as DuckDuckGo.com and StartPage.com (both of whom protect your privacy by not storing your search history).
Information source diversity is our greatest defense against elite domination of our political system. The power of CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, Facebook, Twitter and Google, among others, to control our opinions would be significantly mitigated if we sought alternative news sources.
Forcing yourself to seek out new viewpoints sounds nice in theory but is difficult in practice. It rubs against our basic human nature. Even for myself, as I preach the importance of opinion diversity, my own news consumption patterns in the past three years have grown narrower (…does The Jimmy Dore Show even count as a news show? The fact that this is even a legitimate question indicates how far mainstream news has fallen.).
We need to fight our instinct to drift towards conformity and predictability. If we don’t, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and Google will indeed pick our next president.
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APPENDIX: Summary Data Tables
Figure A.1: Weekly online news clips from Dec. 30, 2018 to July 21, 2019 (28 weeks).
Figure A.2: Google search volume (on a relative scale with a maximum value of 100) from Dec. 30, 2018 to July 29, 2019 (29 weeks).
Figure A.3: Linear regression model for RCP poll average (Dec. 30, 2018 to July 21, 2019) with Google search relative volume and cable news coverage as explanatory variables (n=12 candidates).
Who is Thomas Massie (R-KY) and why is he the only Republican who voted against U.S. House Resolution 246 (Opposing efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel and the Global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement targeting Israel)?
H.R. 246, in a non-binding resolution approved 398–17, condemns the movement to boycott, divest and sanction (BDS) Israel for its policies regarding the Palestinians. Who says bipartisanship is dead? When it comes to pissing on Palestinians, Democrats and Republicans have no trouble coming together.
The resolution, backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, also enshrines the long irrelevant two-state-solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in a presumably sharp rebuke of current Trump administration and Israeli policy.
Additionally, H.R. 246 says Americans have a “right to petition in opposition to government policy,” soothing some Democrats who oppose a stronger Senate anti-BDS bill that penalizes companies and individuals for supporting boycotts, divestment or sanctions directed towards Israel.
Massie ignored the rhetorical smoke screen and recognized H.R. 246 for what it was — a government-led effort to discourage the exercise of free speech. If only more Democrats looked upon the Constitution with the same respect Massie does.
Massie, an M.I.T. grad, is the kind of ‘maverick’ politician other ‘maverick’ politicians keep at arm’s length. He is both predictable and hard to predict. An unfailing anti-interventionist and strong deficit-hawk since entering Congress in 2012, Massie was endorsed by former Texas Representative Ron Paul and his son Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.
He’s the male Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), skeptical of U.S. strategy in the Middle East and the hundreds of other military commitments spread throughout the globe. In May, with Congressman Andy Levin (D-MI), he introduced the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) Clarification Act, designed to require the Trump Administration to receive an explicit authorization from Congress before engaging in military action against Iran.
“Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution clearly gives Congress the sole power to declare war,” Massie said. “Our Founding Fathers believed that Congress — not the President — should possess this power, and that giving such authority to the executive branch presents a direct threat to liberty. As the AUMF Clarification Act states, Congress has never authorized military force against Iran, and any such action would be illegal and unconstitutional without an up-or-down vote.”
The AUMF Clarification Act argues that the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002, nor any other existing law gives the Trump administration the legal authority to use force against Iran. Only a direct authorization by the Congress would give the administration authority.
Not surprisingly, the Trump administration points on current Iran policy, National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, disagree.
Both Gabbard and Massie don’t blindly cheerlead U.S. military adventurism lacking sufficient predicate or well-defined goals. However, since he’s not a woman, Massie doesn’t get smeared as being soft on dictators and tyrants as Gabbard does. He’s ‘thoughtful’ and ‘highly-principled’ according to his congressional colleagues, while Gabbard is ‘weak’ and easily “manipulated” by totalitarian rulers, according to her fellow Democratic Party critics. If you ever want examples of palpable sexism and bias, spend just a few days listening Democrats talk about other Democrats.
Which is why H.R. 246 has been a disturbing outcome for many progressives who fight for the human rights of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation or substantive control. What made the House vote on H.R. 246 so striking is that Massie was on the only Republican to vote against it, while Gabbard and most progressive Democrats, to the dismay of many of their supporters, voted in favor.
Independent journalist and documentary filmmaker Abby Martin, whose film “Gaza Fights for Freedom” was released in June, didn’t hesitate to call out the rank hypocrisy of progressives with respect to H.R. 246:
Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) spent a good part of Wednesday on Twitter explaining their ‘yea’ votes to constituents and followers:
If groveling contrition were an Olympic sport, Khanna and Pressley just won the gold and silver in the ‘How to Betray Palestinians While Pretending You are Their Biggest Supporter.” Spare us your mental gymnastics Ro and Ayanna.
When the U.S. government criticizes free speech (e.g., boycotts) — even without legislating against it — it is discouraging free speech. As a First Amendment-hawk, Massie didn’t need to parse out political considerations from his principles, He knew how to vote on H.R. 246.
And accusing Massie of anti-Semitism over this vote would be like calling Santa Claus the Grinch that stole Christmas. The accusation would never stick. He has no ill-expressed criticisms of Israel that can be misinterpreted as anti-Semitic or any other kind of demonstrable religious, racial or ethnic bias. He criticizes policies, not people, religions or countries.
Unfortunately, for many Democrats, the fear of such a charge has led them down a dark path that not only chips away at our Constitutional freedoms, but makes it increasingly likely that the U.S. will get involved in a prolonged military action against Iran at the urging of the Israeli and Saudi Arabian governments — just one more military commitment to add to our current participation in conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
But what is most problematic about support for H.R. 246 is that it normalizes anti-BDS sentiments — including the association of pro-Palestinian activists as anti-Semitic hate groups on par with the neo-Nazis and KKK — and clears the path for more draconian anti-BDS legislation to become law at the state-level.
While 16 Democratic House members voted against H.R. 246, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Massie may be the lone North Star in the Republican Party, along with the few remaining in the Democratic Party, still pointing us towards the protection of our constitutional freedoms and recognizing the human rights and dignity of the Palestinian people.
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When presented with complex or too much information, willful ignorance often feels like the best option.
“If the cost of educating oneself outweighs the benefit of obtaining deeper or more accurate information, then it is rational to simply ignore contradictory inputs,” argues Kathleen Schaefer in the Journal of International Service. “Economists describe this acceptance of narratives at face value as part of rational ignorance.”
Schaefer’s focus was immigration, but her words just as easily apply to the U.S. healthcare system. Constituting almost 20 percent of the U.S. economy, few issues are as complex as healthcare.
Indeed, it is that narrative about ‘health care policy being too complex for easy solutions’ that is keeping good policy ideas from being embraced by otherwise competent political, news media and economic elites.
Rational ignorance loves the status quo or, if forced, the adoption of incremental policy changes — policies such as Obamacare.
So when former Vice President Joe Biden says of Bernie Sanders’ Medicare-for-All plan that “all the Medicare you have is gone. It’s a new Medicare system. It may be as good, you may like it as well, it may or may not, but the transition of dropping 300 million people on a totally new plan, I think is a little risky at this point.”
Biden is putting on display his own rational ignorance — and it is not just him. A recent MSNBC panel discussion hosted by Stephanie Ruhl kept throwing out terms and phrases like “risky,” “too costly,” “starting from scratch,” and “revolutionary” to describe Sanders’ plan, and calling Biden’s proposal to build off of Obamacare and offer a public option as “safe,” “reasonable” and more “achievable.”
In fact, the opposite may be true and to understand why it important first to understand the gravity of the problems facing our current U.S. healthcare system.
The U.S. healthcare system is broken
No matter how many times Fox News’ Sean Hannity says “the U.S. has the best healthcare system in the world,” it doesn’t make it true. To the contrary, the U.S. healthcare system is a significant outlier among other advanced economies — but not in a good way.
Americans pay twice as much for healthcare (Figure 1), yet, in the aggregate, achieve markedly inferior health outcomes. For example, we die younger (Figure 2) and have a higher infant mortality rate (Figure 2) than most other advanced economies.
Figure 1: Health spending as a % of GDP (Source: OECD, 2018)
Figure 2: Life expectancy at birth (Source: OECD, 2018)
Figure 3: Infant mortality rates for selected countries (Source: OECD, 2018)
Figure 4: Trend in life expectancy at birth in the U.S. (Source: OECD, 2017)
These statistics are not the result of an analytic sleight-of-hand. They are straightforward metrics long measured and commonly used for cross-national comparisons. And the conclusion drawn from them is unmistakable: the U.S. healthcare system underperforms relative to other advanced economies.
The reasons are many and better described elsewhere, but health economists generally agree that one reason is the U.S. private insurance industry adding a layer of administrative costs not present (to the same degree, at least) in most other advanced economies. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) estimate the U.S. private insurance industry accounts for 34 percent of the health insurance dollars (Figure 5) — which translates to nearly $1 trillion.
Figure 5: The Source of U.S. Healthcare Dollars
And while private insurance’s share of the health insurance dollars will likely decline as the U.S. population ages, their financial bottom line will not necessarily suffer if recent performance is an indicator. According to Berkshire Hathaway, through third-quarter 2018, health insurers’ net income grew by 19 percent to $25.8 billion compared with the same prior-year period. Zacks Equity Research reports that the private health insurance industry generated returns higher than the S&P 500 index in each year from 2012 to 2017, returning an impressive 257 percent compared with the S&P 500 index’s gain of 91 percent. This is a good time to be the health insurance industry.
It is not, however, a good time to need medical care. While the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) significantly reduced the percentage of Americans without insurance from 18 percent in 2013 to 11 percent in 2016, that percentage has since risen to almost 14 percent in late 2018, according to the Gallup Organization. In addition, The Commonwealth Fund recently reported that the percent of underinsured American adults (aged 19–64) has risen from 10 percent in 2003 to 28 percent in 2018 (Figure 6).
And for those Americans with private health insurance — either through their employer or through an individual plan — costs have risen prohibitively over the past 20 years. In 2018 the average annual premium for employer-based family coverage was $19,600 (up 5 percent from 2017) and was $6,900 for single coverage (up 3 percent from 2017), according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 1999, the average annual premium for family coverage was only $6,000, and for single coverage around $2,500.
There is only one rational conclusion: The U.S. healthcare system is under-delivering, whether in comparison to other advanced economies or to its own past performance.
The media, politicians, and Sanders himself are misrepresenting Medicare-for-All
In this context, Sanders’ Medicare-for-All plan is hardly ‘revolutionary,’ ‘radical’ or a ‘fundamental transformation’ of the U.S. healthcare system. It takes an existing, successful public health program — Medicare — and, over time, expands it to the remaining segments of the population.
But its critics drive home a contrasting picture of Medicare-for-All:
Medicare-for-All requires starting from scratch!
As seen in Figure 5 above, public health programs (Medicare/Medicaid, CHIPs, DoD’s Tricare, the Veterans Administration healthcare system) already account for two-thirds of U.S. health insurance dollars and, even without Medicare-for-All, will likely increase its share over time as the American population ages. And with the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence and machine learning, scaling up the current Medicare system to the rest of the population should become easier. Medicare-for-All is the exact opposite of starting from scratch.
It’s too expensive!
Medicare-for-All critics also instill doubt by suggesting the program’s expansion will lead to substantially higher taxes and potentially national bankruptcy. Sanders’ senior economic advisor, economist Stephanie Kelton, has a direct response:
Most estimates of Medicare-for-All’s costs over its first 10 years range from $32 trillion to over $40 trillion. Yes, that is a big number, but remember that our current healthcare system is going to cost between $34 trillion and $47 trillion.
Any forecast about healthcare spending is built upon debatable assumptions, but, at a minimum, we should be able to answer with confidence, “Will Medicare-for-All increase or decrease healthcare spending overall?”
Based on Sanders’ description of his Medicare-for-All plan, cost savings will occur in four primary areas: (1) reduced drug prices through increased price competition, (2) reduction in administrative costs (i.e., elimination of private health insurance), (3) constraints on provider payment rates (i.e., what doctors and hospitals are paid), and (4) increased use of preventive medicine (resulting in a healthier population and less demand for high-cost medical services).
Forecasts on Medicare-for-All costs are sensitive to assumptions, particularly regarding whether or not Medicare-for-All will pay current Medicare/Medicaid rates (which are generally below actual costs).
Assuming Medicare-for-All reimbursement rates remain near current Medicare/Medicaid rates, the real problem with Medicare-for-All is that it shrinks 20 percent of the U.S. economy.
How will economic growth be affected, particularly in the short-term, if cost rationality is brought to our healthcare system? How do you eliminate an entire industry (supplemental, private-based insurance notwithstanding) and not cause a recession?
As described by the Sanders campaign, Medicare-for-All is more likely to put downward pressure on what this country spends on healthcare.
It will require the government to raise taxes on the middle class!
Similarly, the claim that middle class taxes will rise under Medicare-for-All dovetails with the ‘too expensive’ argument and rests on the same question: Can we achieve total cost savings through Medicare-for-All?
Regrettably, Bernie Sanders didn’t help his cause by telling the Associated Press that his healthcare plan could cost up to $40 trillion over a decade and that he’d consider raising taxes on the middle class “in exchange for healthcare without co-payments or deductibles.” Lost in the translation is that Sanders believes the savings to households by eliminating co-payments and deductibles would exceed any tax hike.
Still, he did say he’d consider raising middle class taxes and that is all his critics needed to hear.
Setting aside the distinction between families sending their money to insurance companies through payroll deductions, deductibles and copays versus paying a healthcare tax, the probability of tax increases pivots on whether Medicare-for-All can reduce costs.
If ‘yes,’ then the Medicare-for-All tax will merely be replacing premiums, deductibles and copays and perhaps even leave households more disposable income. If ‘no,’ then tax increases will be necessary — and taxing the rich probably won’t be enough if Medicare-for-All cost estimates by Urban Institute healthcare analysts John Holahan and Linda J. Blumberg are accurate. They estimate Medicare-for-All over 10 years will cost $33 trillion and will be entirely financed by taxes on individuals and businesses. Even research by the Mercatus Center, a libertarian think tank funded by the Koch brothers, assessed that Medicare-for-All could save $2 trillion in total spending, costing around $32 trillion over a 10-year period.
Predictably, Joe Biden has picked up on this area of disputatiousness within Sanders plan and is declaring that “Bidencare” — in contrast — will expand healthcare coverage and lower costs without raising taxes on the middle class (the details on how he will do that are still pending). The Biden attack on Medicare-for-All has also been reinforced by the news media, with the Washington Post poo-pooing the Mercatus Center savings conclusion as being cherry-picked from that study.
So why am I not convinced that Medicare-for-All will lead to higher healthcare-related spending by households?
There is one incontrovertible fact that the American news media, policy analysts, business lobbies and political class continue to ignore: Every advanced economy with universal coverage delivers better healthcare to their citizens and does so at a unit cost significantly lower than the U.S. (see Figure 1 above).
Germany does it. France does it. Canada does it. The United Kingdom does it. Japan does it. And there is no inherent reason the United States can’t do it, if the political will exists to do so.
Many of these countries pay higher tax rates than Americans, but that does not explain why they deliver healthcare at lower cost and with superior outcomes.
As taxpayers, we should fight paying higher taxes for healthcare as long powerful special interests groups co-opt our healthcare system, bloating its costs for exorbitant private gain and leaving Americans in significantly poorer health than comparable populations in other countries.
The ‘middle class tax increase’ canard is a distraction with one purpose: scare Americans away from thinking a single-payer healthcare system is possible.
But it is possible. California Representative Ro Khanna recently responded to Biden’s tax increase criticism by noting that if the healthcare status quo persists it will cost us $49 trillion over the next 10 years. If Medicare-for-All were to come anywhere close to the $32 trillion price tag estimated by the Mercatus Center and The Urban Institute, middle class Americans won’t be worrying about a tax increase, but rather how to spend the money they’ve saved under Medicare-for-All.
It’s socialized medicine that will lead to healthcare rationing!
The irony of the ‘healthcare rationing’ critique is that our current system already has significant levels of healthcare rationing. Anytime someone doesn’t buy health insurance or has inadequate health insurance coverage because of high premiums, that is a textbook example of healthcare rationing.
The challenge for Medicare-for-All will be predicting the initial surge in utilization rates with the rollout of Medicare-for-All, as people start getting the basic and preventive care they chose not to receive under the private insurance-based system. In the long-run, higher utilization rates will save money as people get more preventive care services and address potentially expensive health issues earlier in their development.
Second, Medicare-for-All isn’t socialized medicine. The doctors, nurses, hospitals, clinics, pharmaceutical companies, and medical equipment manufacturers all remain in the private sector under Medicare-for-All. Only the administrative function for U.S. healthcare, currently handled by private insurance, will be rolled into the public sector. A patient under Medicare-for-All is unlikely to ever talk to a public employee during a treatment or service delivery. Medicare-for-All is statism, but not socialism. The British National Health Service is socialized medicine.
It is too complex!
This is my favorite complaint about Medicare-for-All, especially coming from Democrats proposing a public option and other tweeks to Obamacare. On the day it was passed, ACA contained 2,300 pages and would soon include over 16,000 more pages in additional rules and regulations. The section of the Social Security Act of 1965 creating Medicare contained only 138 pages. Complex is the arcane, special interest laden maze that Obamacare has grafted onto our system. Medicare-for-All simplifies everything by blowing all that up, leaving us with a familiar healthcare system under Medicare that is already established and functioning.
Medicare-for-All proponents need to address rational ignorance
Unfortunately, the portrayal of Medicare-for-All as radical reform is, in part, due to Sanders himself and how he sells the idea to Democratic voters — who generally support the concept, even among many of Sanders’ non-supporters.
“If you support Medicare-for-All, you have to be willing to end the greed of the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries,” Sanders says in his current stump speech. “That means boldly transforming our dysfunctional system by ending the use of private health insurance. It is imperative that we remain steadfast in our commitment to guarantee healthcare as a human right and no longer private corporations to make billions of dollars in profits off Americans’ healthcare.”
Drama sells and Sanders understandably presents his healthcare proposal in that light. But while bold rhetoric may work for Democratic activists, it may be counterproductive in persuading those on the fence with respect to Medicare-for-All.
Before he died, Fox News analyst Charles Krauthammer conceded that this country was heading towards a Medicare-for-All system. He wasn’t a fan, even as he acknowledged its legitimate political attraction.
“I think, historically speaking, we’re at the midpoint,” he told Fox News’ Chris Wallace in May 2017 as Congress was debating whether to end Obamacare. . “We had seven years of ObamaCare, a change in expectations, and I would predict in less than seven years we’ll be in a single-payer system.”
Predicting that whatever Congress and President Trump came up with in 2017 would be ‘rickety,’ Krauthammer concluded: “It’s likely that Republicans are going to suffer at the polls, and as a result of that — if that happens — you’re going to get a sea-change in opinion. Then there’s only two ways to go: to a radically individualist system, where the market rules, or to single-payer. And the country is not going to go back to radically individualist.”
Unlike Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg or Kamala Harris, Krauthammer educated himself on single-payer systems (e.g., Medicare-for-All). He consciously went beyond rational ignorance, though he remained a critic of the statist approach to healthcare. The radical approach to healthcare is our current private insurance-based, individualist system. It has failed and Krauthammer grudgingly acknowledged as much.
Medicare-for-All is the prudent expansion of a well-established program to other segments in the population that are, on average, healthier than those currently covered by Medicare. The overall cost effectiveness of Medicare should increase as it covers younger, healthier population segments.
In truth, Medicare-for-All is the most prudent, safest, and least complicated way to bring meaningfully improvement to the U.S. healthcare system. Tinkering on the margins by offering a public option (of unknown price competitiveness) within an already bloated, inefficient healthcare system is far costlier and riskier.
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Growing up in America’s farm belt, weather proverbs were commonly heard and taken seriously. The one I always remember I first heard from my grandmother: “Frogs croaking on the lake, means an umbrella one must take.” Or something like that.
She didn’t live near a lake, so I’m not sure how useful that piece of folk wisdom was for her, but it stuck with me. And, as it turns out, the proverb has some basis in fact. Frogs do croak more on hot, humid days — which is a good predictor of stormy weather.
But the way my grandmother used the proverb, or at least how my child’s mind interpreted it, I believed for years that croaking frogs caused thunderstorms. Croaking frogs, of course, do not have such power.
Years later, I would realize my grandmother offered me my first lesson in spurious correlations, and I’ve used the croaking frogs proverb in statistics classes many times since.
The lesson is one most people hear many times during their education: Correlation is not causation. Two events (x and y in the graphic below) can be statistically correlated but not be causally related, as they are both impacted by the true causal factor (z).
Frogs are affected by the same forces — temperature, humidity and air pressure — that cause thunderstorms. There is no causal relationship. To this day, I still call these relationships croaking frogs.
We may have a new example of this inferential deficiency concerning an analytic question of current importance: Did meddling by Russia’s Internet Research Agency(IRA) impact the final outcome of the 2016 election?
Four University of Tennessee researchers, Damian J. Ruck, Natalie Manaeva Rice, Joshua Borycz, and R. Alexander Bentley, have concluded, based upon a time-series analysis of IRA tweets and their diffusion within the Twittersphere during that election, that IRA Twitter activity predicted the 2016 election results. In their study released in July, they concluded:
“We find that changes in opinion poll numbers for one of the candidates were consistently preceded by corresponding changes in IRA re-tweet volume, at an optimum interval of one week before. In contrast, the opinion poll numbers did not correlate with future re-tweets or ‘likes’ of the IRA tweets. We find that the release of these tweets parallel significant political events of 2016 and that approximately every 25,000 additional IRA re-tweets predicted a one percent increase in election opinion polls for one candidate. As these tweets were part of a larger, multimedia campaign, it is plausible that the IRA was successful in influencing U.S. public opinion in 2016.”
The Washington Post’s Philip Bump wasted no time in challenging the Ruck et al. study for its failure to account for other causal factors that may have acted on both IRA Twitter activity and Trump’s public support:
“It’s important to note that the researchers focused on retweets and not overall tweets from the IRA. (In fact, they found that “we see weak evidence for an effect in the opposite direction, suggesting the possibility that IRA Twitter activity is increasing in response to Trump’s polling.”) This suggests that, if there was a meaningful correlation between Twitter activity and poll data, both were driven by some outside engagement. People becoming active on Twitter also may have happened as they were demonstrating more support for Trump. This is what’s known as a causal fork: Both the IRA retweets and Trump support may have been caused by the same external thing. If there’s a correlation here, that is. Which is . . . up for debate.”
Bump also noted that the magnitude and targeting of IRA’s Twitter and Facebook activity was not large or precise enough to plausibly move public opinion:
“It’s important to note that, on its face, the idea that 25,000 retweets could drive national political polls by a percentage point seems highly unlikely. Over the course of the 2016 election, there were 75 million tweets directly related to the election itself. If only 1 percent of those were retweeted 10 times, that means that the 25,000 retweets are fitting into a flood of 75 million original and 7.5 million retweeted tweets. It means, in other words, that the requisite 25,000 retweets make up 0.03 percent of all of that Twitter activity.”
“There’s very little evidence that Russia effectively targeted American voters with messages that powered Trump’s victory. Russia paid for a lot of Facebook ads in the populous states of New York and Texas in the last five weeks of the campaign, but its ads targeting the three states that handed Trump the election — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — were seen by only 1,000 people. There’s no evidence at all that Russia used Twitter to target people in particular places or demographic groups, targeting that would have left fingerprints in the form of receipts for payment.”
To the credit of the University of Tennessee researchers, they acknowledged the limitations of their study when they write, “Causation is not proven by this analysis, but certain directions of causality can be ruled out when one time series does not predict the other…We take the view that IRA Twitter activity was representative of a larger, multimedia disinformation campaign.”
Ruck et al. also write that their intent was to test “prediction, not causality,” as they admitted it is unlikely that “25,000 retweets could influence one percent of the electorate in isolation.” And, most appropriately, they recognize their study cannot rule out the importance of unmeasured factors that could render their findings spurious. They write in the study’s concluding section:
“Any correlation established by an observational study could be spurious. Though our main finding has proved robust and our time series analysis excludes reverse causation, there could still be a third variable driving the relationship between IRA Twitter success and U.S. election opinion polls. We controlled for one of these — the success of Donald Trump’s personal Twitter account — but there are others that are more difficult to measure; including exposure to the U.S domestic media.”
This is where the Ruck et al. research makes its biggest analytic error. What they call the ‘third variable’ is probably a set of variables — unmeasured and uncontrolled for in the Ruck et al. study — that, had they been included in the study, would likely washout the statistical significance of the IRA retweets.
By the Mueller investigation’s own estimate, IRA spent $100,000 between 2015 and 2017, with only $46,000 dedicated to Russian-linked Facebook ads purchased prior to the 2016 election. According to freelance journalist Aaron Maté, “That amounts to about 0.05 percent of the $81 million spent on Facebook ads by the Clinton and Trump campaigns combined — which is itself a tiny fraction of the estimated $2 billion spent by the candidates and their supporting PACS.”
There is, however, an obvious candidate for the honor of being the “larger, multimedia disinformation campaign” Ruck et al. consider as the more likely driving force behind the “manipulation” of the 2016 electorate. That third variable is the Trump campaign’s social media campaign, powered by Cambridge Analytica’s massive data warehouse, which included data harvested from over 50 million Facebook user profiles.
Unlike IRA’s use of Twitter and Facebook, where the hard evidence shows little sophistication in both content and targeting, Cambridge Analytica engineered one of the most sophisticated Big Data-driven social media campaigns in presidential history.
In an interview with CNBC, the 2016 Trump campaign’s digital director, Brad Parscale, detailed how his team, including Cambridge Analytica, created highly targeted Facebook advertising based on scientific testing to optimize each advertisement’s click rate. “We were making hundreds of thousands of them (ads on Facebook) programmatically. … (On an) average day (we would make) 50,000 to 60,000 ads, … changing language, words, colors, changing things because certain people like a green button better than a blue button, some people like the word ‘donate’ over ‘contribute,’” Parscale told CNBC.
Just on scale, IRA’s efforts pale in comparison to Parscale/Cambridge Analytica’s. Add to that the much higher level of campaign sophistication by Parscale/Cambridge Analytica, and it begs the question, how could any serious research on the impact of Russian meddling in 2016 not include measures of the Trump’s campaigns social media efforts (and Hillary Clinton’s as well for that matter)?
Ignoring Cambridge Analytica’s social media campaign, Ruck et al. have given us a croaking frog-level analysis. It is as if the Ruck et al. research team, while sitting in a small row boat on a lake, experienced a large wake and attributed it to an 8-meter motor boat passing by, ignoring the fact that a 100-meter, 6,700 gross tonnage yacht passed by at the exact same time.
While their forthrightness on their study’s flaws is admirable, Ruck et al. have not done the measurements and work necessary to release any meaningful results on a subject as politically volatile as Russia’s influence on the 2016 election. As it stands today, their study offers little to the conversation.
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