July 28, 2019 📊 What would a Biden or Warren victory actually mean?

Plus, Trump's tax cuts aren't working; and the strength of political parties in America.

Welcome! I’m G. Elliott Morris, data journalist for The Economist and blogger of polls, elections, and political science. Happy Sunday! Here’s my weekly email with links to what I’ve been reading and writing that puts the news in context with public opinion polls, political science, other data (some “big,” some small) and looks briefly at the week ahead. Feedback? Drop me a line or just respond to this email. 


Dear Reader,

I’m always hesitant to think that we are living in extraordinary times. Perhaps this makes me some sort of boring naysayer. Or maybe I’m missing something. But studying history gave me this creeping feeling that (a) times are always extraordinary or (b) only times in which huge events like founding nations or inventing the Internet actually are. In that vein, I don’t think the 2020 Democratic primary represents some extraordinary moment, a “battle for the soul of the party”. Rather, it seems to me to be a pretty normal nominating contest (aside from the sheer number of candidates)—and again, either every contest is a battle for the soul of the party, or just a few are.

I also have links on my recent work on 2020 (general election) polling, inequality in Congress and party nominating procedures. There are some good pieces on issue polling floating around, too, and some fascinating bits on how cities change the landscape of heatwaves.

Thanks for reading my weekly email. Please consider sharing online and/or forwarding to a friend. If you’d like to read more of my writing, I publish subscribers-only content 1-3x a week on this platform. Click the button below to subscribe for $5/month (or $50 annually). You also get the ability to leave comments on posts and join in on private threads, which are fun places for discussion!

My best!

—Elliott


This Week's Big Question

What would a Biden or Warren victory actually mean?

Is this is a battle for the soul of a party, or just a search for a nominee?

Image: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Everything is always monumental in the moment, but often, those events we think monumental turn out to be but little blips on the radar that is time. Donald Trump’s election is a good example. While he has stampeded our democratic norms, pursued a devaluing of our governing institutions and acted badly in numerous other ways, I do not think his presidency has represented the extraordinary political realignment that some proclaimed upon his ascendancy to the White House. Perhaps Barack Obama’s electoral coalition is another example; Though some thought his victory represented a structural change in African Americans’ political participation and the economic rationalism of white working-class voters, both of these narratives have since turned on their heads.

I think we are living through another one of these times today. The 2020 Democratic Party is characterized in this week’s Time Magazine as a “fight for America’s future” and Molly Ball asks “Whose party is it?”. Such questions stem from a contextualization of primary elections as a fight between two (or more) groups. The party faces some sort of fork in the road and must choose a path, never able to revert to the other. Often those groups are ideological—Clinton vs. Sanders became left vs center in 2016—but can be racial, generational, class-based or something else. I’m not sure this contextualization is quite right, and I don’t think the victory of either Biden or Warren represents a foundational change either in American politics or the Democratic Party. And if it does, it might not be the one we think.

Part of this story is simply “we’ve been here before.” Barack Obama’s candidacy for the nomination in 2008 represented a fight against establishment politics to many, and a shift away from white voters to some. But membership in the party does not actually look that different in 2019 as it did a decade ago. Shifts in composition are mostly small, and the big one—a split in the white vote by education—had both been emerging before Obama and does not really fit neatly in the “outsider v insider” narrative of the 2008 primary. See this table from a recent paper by Joshua Zingher, a professor of political science, for evidence of these small compositional changes:

Similarly, there is not much evidence that the, whites without college degrees—the demographic group that supposedly made Donald Trump president—have lurched to the right since Donald Trump’s election, something we would expect if the realignment hypothesis were correct. Instead, WWC-heavy counties in the rural midwest saw the strongest shifts toward Democrats from 2016 to 2018. Data from both Catalist and AP’s VoteCast show that non-college whites leaned to the right of the nation with similar magnitude in 2018 as 2016.

What about the 2020 primary? Is the battle ideological? Would Joe Biden’s victory really amount to some sort of continuation of centrist rule over the party? Would Elizabeth Warren’s represent some sort of leftist revolt? Or is it racial, with Biden’s victory meaning African Americans have the power while Warren’s means whites do?

First off, I think if Biden wins we only have evidence of a continuation of the status quo in the primary; the same groups that favored Hillary over Sanders currently favor Biden (including, perhaps surprisingly, women, but also non-whites) over Warren. And though some in the media are painting Biden into the centrist corner (especially on race) his positions are actually somewhat liberal compared to someone like John Delaney.

This would naturally imply that Warren’s victory would be a departure from said status quo, but I wouldn’t assume as much. Make no mistake, Warren’s victory in the primary would be a big win for progressive Democratic groups, but the party already favors things like a national insurance plan, taxing the rich and free college. A Warren victory isn’t a shift in the party. The shift already happened. Her victory would be a consequence of the transformation. And if the change has already happened, steadily over time, without fanfare, is it really all that transformative?

I don’t think national journalists are wrong for characterizing the race in this way. There are indeed very large differences between Warren and Biden, Sanders and Harris (and on and on) but my prior is that they likely do not represents transformative changes in Democratic Party politics. I think, rather, their victories would be those that could happen in a typical nominating battle—rather than some ultra-important the-fate-of-America-is-at-stake battle.

In other words, we’re living in extraordinary times. But aren’t we always?

Then again, maybe I’m just putting undue weight on my prior. I’m open to changing my mind.


And now, some of the stuff that I read (and wrote) over the last week.


Posts for subscribers:


Political Data

From me for The Economist: “When to pay attention to 2020 polls and forecasts”

According to number-crunching from Christopher Wlezien and Robert Erikson, political scientists at the University of Texas and Columbia University, pre-election polls make for poor predictors until the close of summer in an election year, by which point both parties have held their nominating conventions. In their book “The 2012 Campaign and the Timeline of Presidential Elections”, they explain that candidates’ standing in the polls fails to account for even half of the variance in their eventual vote margins until the spring before the election. At 330 days before the contest—roughly December of the year before the election—polls show virtually no correlation to final election outcomes; today, 467 days before the 2020 election, they are even worse. One could make better predictions by flipping a coin than by looking at the polls.

The very opacity of complex statistical models can also create an illusion of validity, particularly when they come from a respected expert. But as George Box, a famous statistician, once said, “all models are wrong, but some are useful”. Forecasters and observers alike would do well to remember that. 

There’s a lot in this article. Pls read.

Also from me for The Economist: “Should political parties really let anyone run for president?”

It is too late for reformers to affect the system that will be used in 2020, but it is not unimaginable that they may do so later on. Both parties already enact restrictions on who may run, and even the constitution includes some anti-democratic requirements, such as the need to be 35 years or older to run for president. Nor is it abnormal for the parties to exercise a heavy hand in their nomination processes. In the 2008 primary, for example, the Democratic National Committee voted to strip Michigan and Florida of all their pledged delegates after they scheduled their primary elections earlier in the year than originally agreed. The rules committees of the two parties still have the power and flexibility to reform a system that is failing to work. They should use it.

Nate Silver (FiveThirtyEight): “Medicare For All Isn’t That Popular — Even Among Democrats”

Last week, I noted that Bernie Sanders is winning over Democratic primary voters on health care. Whether you love, hate or are indifferent toward his “Medicare for All” plan, polls show Sanders leading when Democratic voters are asked which candidate they think is best able handle to health care.

The thing is, though — according to new polling from Marist College this week — Sanders’s plan isn’t actually the most popular idea in the field. Instead, that distinction belongs to what Marist calls “Medicare for all that want it,” or what’s sometimes called a public option — something very similar to Joe Biden’s recently unveiled health care plan, which claims to give almost everyone “the choice to purchase a public health insurance option like Medicare.”

In the Marist poll, 90 percent of Democrats thought a plan that provided for a public option was a good idea, as compared to 64 percent who supported a Sanders-style Medicare for All plan that would replace private health insurance. The popularity of the public option also carries over to independent voters: 70 percent support it, as compared to 39 percent for Medicare for All.

Emily Badger and Nate Cohn (The Upshot): “White Anxiety, and a President Ready to Address It”

That means this moment shouldn’t simply be understood as a backlash against the country’s first black president, political scientists say. It is also a response to the first president in the modern era to make explicit appeals to white racial anxieties the central focus of his campaigns.

“All of a sudden, these people who had no vehicle to express these attitudes are now being invited to express them,” said Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at U.C.L.A. and occasional Upshot contributor, and a co-author of a book with Mr. Tesler and John Sides on the role of racial identity in the 2016 election. “Trump is a huge element in what’s going on. He’s insufficient, but he’s necessary. The voters are not sufficient but they’re necessary.”

The evidence that racial attitudes now play an important role in vote choice among white voters is overwhelming. It has been replicated in study after study, in just about every major survey in political science over the last decade.

Matthew Yglesias (Vox): “New GDP data confirms Trump’s tax cuts aren’t working”

… the basic supply-side dynamics of the American economy where businesses invest in improving the long-term productive capacity of the economy got worse. It’s not entirely clear why. The good news is that the problems were offset by considerable fiscal stimulus — both in terms of tax cuts that boosted household spending but also critically in terms of a huge boost in outright government spending.

There’s nothing wrong with giving the economy a little fiscal boost when interest rates are low.

But note that government spending growth was negative in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014, and nearly zero back in 2015 and 2016. The reason for that is back when Obama was president, Republicans pretended to believe that it was very important to keep government spending as low as possible. If instead spending had been allowed to grow modestly during this six-year period, millions of unemployed people could instead have found work and the United States would overall be much richer today. On the other hand, a better economy back then might have led to worse results for the GOP in the 2014 and 2016 elections.

The case for Trump’s tax cuts, however, was supposed to be not just that they’d give the economy a brief stimulus but that they would generate a massive boom of business investment. It didn’t happen, and now business investment is actually going into reverse. The economy, to the extent that it’s growing, is doing so thanks to policies Republicans claim to reject.


Other Data and Cool Stuff:

Linda Poon (City Lab): “Here’s What the Heat Island Looks Like in East Coast Cities”

The annual mean air temperature of a city with at least 1 million people can be 2 to 5 degrees warmer than its surroundings, according to the EPA. In the evening, that temperature difference can be as high as 22 degrees. Experts chalk it up to the asphalt, steel, and concrete that trap the heat better than natural vegetation, as well as the disruption of airflow by the grid-like layout of cities.

Even within cities, there can be surprising differences in temperature from one area to the next. In 2017 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration enlisted volunteers to map air temperatures throughout Richmond, Virginia, to find where the urban heat island effect is most extreme. It was part of the agency’s Urban Heat Mapping Project, and in the summer of 2018, citizen scientists did the same for Baltimore and D.C. This weekend, theyre measuring temperatures across Boston. Here’s how the heat island has been mapped across those cities:


Political Science, Survey Research, and Other Nerdy Things

Shiro Kuriwaki on Twitter: CCES vote mis-reporting looks like a product of social desirability bias (my commentary):

Alexander Agadjanian: Trump switchers look more like Trump voters than Clinton voters on a variety of policy measures (my commentary):

Trump switchers are attached to the Republican Party, though not as much as all Trump voters are. Interestingly, they are right between Trump and Clinton voters for degree of identification as conservative or very conservative (on self-described ideology).

The economy is important for all voters, but the party in power matters for their assessment of the economy in terms of whether it’s getting better. Notably, Trump switchers aren’t the same as all Trump voters (they rate the economy less positively) but these switchers still follow the same upward trend after entering the Trump presidency. This suggests they come under similar pressures of partisan motivated reasoning as regular partisan voters do on perceived conditions that reflect on the party in power (like the economy).

Switchers are more resistant to free trade than either major party voting group.

For the role of government in health care coverage, Trump switchers don’t hew more closely to all Clinton or Trump voters, but have grown more conservative on this issue during the Trump era (2016 and 2017).


What I'm Reading and Working On

I’m working on 2020 Democratic primary stuff… and lots of it. Some of you may also remember that I have a personal blog, which I’m putting some effort into revamping. Style suggestions welcome!


Something Fun

I enjoyed this political cartoon by Matt Davies for Newsday


Thanks for reading!

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back in your inbox next Sunday. In the meantime, follow me online or reach out via email. I’d love to hear from you!

If you want more content from me, I publish subscribers-only posts on Substack 1-3 times each week. Sign up today for $5/month (or $50/year) by clicking on the following button. Even if you don't want the extra posts, the funds go toward supporting the time spent writing this free, weekly letter. Your support makes this all possible!