June 16, 2019 📊What a liberal Democratic president could accomplish

Plus, some fresh 2020 statistical modeling and numbers on a Trump bump in news subscriptions

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,

The Republican majority in Congress, while not guaranteed to continue past 2020, looks likely to persist for the foreseeable future. With this comes the power-abusing, rule-defying majoritarian legislating of Mitch McConnell and the gridlock he induces. What could a Democratic president accomplish with him in charge of the upper branch of the United States’s national legislature? What could they do through the executive branch alone?

I’ve also got links to some fresh 2020 polls, Democratic primary modeling from CBS/YouGov and numbers on a Trump bump in subscribers to American newspapers.

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—Elliott


This Week's Big Question

What a liberal Democratic president could accomplish

Given the GOP's (likely) lock on the Senate and thus Mitch McConnell's stranglehold on (lower-case-'r') republican governance, probably not a lot—but maybe more than you think.

Image: Gage Skidmore

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week that he would block a Democratic push to shore up the nation’s electoral systems, even though problems are abundant (for example, multiple counties in Florida have confirmed that Russia gained access to their voter systems last year). Even worse, McConnell also remarked last month that he would fill a Supreme Court vacancy in 2020—something he explicitly fought against when it was Obama’s turn to nominate a judge in 2016 (McConnell decisively robbed Merrick Garland of his seat on the Court).

Given that McConnell also stands opposed to Democratic efforts on climate change, immigration reform and a litany of other issues, what could a progressive Democratic president, like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, ever hope to accomplish in office?

This question has been fielded frequently to Warren as well as 2020 Democratic contender Michael Bennet, who has spoken at length about his distaste for McConnell (last week he accused the majority leader and House Freedom Caucus of tyranny). The thing is, Bennet’s complaints are not over-hyped. McConnell has displayed a deep disrespect for America’s governing norms and institutions since taking office and has chosen to preserve and protect Republican power rather than the Constitution. Given this, on what issues can we reasonably expect he would ever agree to bipartisan cooperation? What parts of Warren et. al.’s platform would he allow through?

McConnell seems willing to shake hands on some issues. The perennial compromise issue is infrastructure. But Donald Trump entered office pledging $1tn for projects to improve the United States’s interstate highway system and repair its many crumbling bridges and nothing has happened. If massive infrastructure spending didn’t happen when the president had uniform control of government, how could one endeavor to do so under divided control? The reason infrastructure is a perennial compromise issue is because, perennially, nothing has gotten done on it.

Another area in which McConnell has shown flexibility is on criminal justice reform. He, the president, and Democratic allies signed a good (but not necessarily ambitious) package in 2018 that reduced mandatory minimums, among other things. McConnell and Trump have tried to whip votes on a fix for the opioid crisis (health care spending and forgiving policies on drug use are typically Democratic priorities), too.

What else is there? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps one or two things. But nevertheless this is likely the wrong framing of the question. “What could a Democratic president accomplish?” is not just what they could get through the House and Senate but also what they could do by themself.

When it comes to executive powers, one of the most left-leaning of 2020 candidates has a plan. Elizabeth Warren has pledged to end offshore drilling on her first day in office, for example. However, in an interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein she also promised to pass a wealth tax and student debt relief. Those are not executive branch plans. Her her real plan for the presidency is a different one entirely. It’s to mobilize enough voters to force congress not only to act how they want on the issues they bring up, but to set the agenda differently altogether. Warren says:

Last year, Elijah Cummings and I with the doctors, we talked with the health care professionals, the people who are patients and patient advocacy groups, lots of different groups, and got the outlines of a bill together. We introduced that last year. It got a lot of co-sponsors. This year, we had some improvements on that bill. We got more co-sponsors, and we laid out how we would pay for it. We introduced it again.

My hope is that they’ll run it over in the House all the way through the legislative process. Hold hearings on it. Get a vote on it because look at the position that puts us in come January 2021 if we have a democratic majority in the House and the Senate and we’ve already vetted these bills, we’ve already run them through the process, we’ve already talked about them out there in public with voters. Now we’ve got a chance to start making a real difference early.

You asked me about my theory about this. This is the importance of engaging everyone. The importance not just of talking to other senators and representatives but the importance of engaging people across this country. You start to win and you can keep winning.

Honestly, “propose policies that people like and ask them to call their representative” is not a bad plan. But it still involves consent from the Senate and House.

So maybe the answer to this question is… “not much”? Democrats’ hope for a successful president in 2020 rests on their ability to win the Senate as well. Lucky for them, some analysts have put that probability around 50-50. Whether or not that’s right is up for debate.


And now, the most notable stuff I read and wrote over the last week.


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Political Data

From me for The Economist: “Donald Trump’s presidency has moved America left”

Public opinion is contradictory: many more Americans describe themselves as conservative than as liberal; yet Americans prefer left-leaning policies to right-leaning ones, even when these are accompanied by the promise of higher taxes. Mr Stimson’s data show a steady leftward shift in Americans’ views on the scope of government since 1952. And according to data from the Policy Agendas Project, an academic research group, the public also holds views that are more tolerant than ever on social issues like same-sex marriage; worries more about the environment; and is more enthusiastic about immigration and giving a helping hand to African-Americans.

The American public’s preferences on policy have long shown an allergy to whatever the occupant of the White House is trying to do. In this respect public opinion is like a thermostat: when policy gets too hot, Americans turn the temperature down. When the government drifts too far right, Americans want to move back to the left, as happened in the 2018 mid-term elections.

Perry Bacon Jr. (FiveThirtyEight): “Should We Take These Early General Election Polls Seriously? $#!% No!”

So, just how seriously should we take hypothetical general election polls more than a year out and before the Democratic nominee has been selected?

Not seriously.

In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, this same question came up, and FiveThirtyEight analyzed general election polls from 1944 to 2012 that tested the eventual nominees and were conducted in the last two months of the year before the election (so for 2012, that would be November and December of 2011). On average, these polls missed the final result by 11 percentage points.

The last presidential election featured one of the more accurate sets of early polls for this point in the cycle: Hillary Clinton led Donald Trump 46.2 percent to 41.2 percent in an average of all polls conducted in November and December 2015, missing the eventual national popular vote margin by about 3 points.3 (The actual result was Clinton 48.0 percent, Trump 46.0 percent.)

Anthony Salvanto (CBS News): “Battleground Tracker poll: Biden leads, with Warren, Harris, Sanders close behind”

CBS News' model translates vote preferences in the states and districts into delegates because that's the count that will ultimately matter — incorporating party rules along the way. Were these vote preferences today to be the ones that emerged across all these states, Biden would lead in the delegate standings through Super Tuesday by a wide margin, with Warren and Sanders in the mix behind him.

Biden's top-preference numbers across the early states would translate into an estimated delegate standing of 731 delegates, compared to Warren's 355 and Sanders' 317. These candidates, in turn, have a distinct edge in consideration over the remainder of the field.

The model is not a forecast: it is offered as a way of demonstrating how candidate support translates into delegate allocations based on state and party rules, because the nomination contest is ultimately a contest for delegates to the convention. Delegates are awarded at the state level ("at-large") and also by district, which the model takes into account.

Gus Wezerek and Oliver Roeder (FiveThirtyEight): “Which 2020 Candidates Have The Most In Common … On Twitter?”

Interestingly, the overlap between followers mirrors the overlap between voters in our polling:


Other Data and Cool Work

From me for The Economist: “How to spot a recession”

One new clue comes from a new report by Claudia Sahm, an economist at the Federal Reserve, who has developed a new method for predicting economic downturns. In the report, Ms Sahm argues that when the three-month average unemployment rate is at least 0.5 percentage points above its minimum from the previous 12 months, the economy is in a recession. This simple measure, it turns out, has correctly called every recession in America since 1970. In January 2008, for example, Ms Sahm’s index warned of the coming Great Recession. The index had also flashed red in early 2001, amid the bursting of the dotcom bubble. Today, conditions are considerably less dire. With unemployment 0.07 percentage points below its minimum of the past year, the “Sahm recession indicator” suggests that the chance of a downturn occurring in the next year is just 10%.

Neal Rothschild, Sara Fischer and Stef W. Kight (Axios): A nation of news consumption hypocrites

According to traffic data pulled from Parse.ly's 2000+ publisher member sites for the month of May, demand is highest for news about politics and government, followed by sports and immigration.

But while the demand for those topics is high, most consumers said in an Axios/SurveyMonkey poll that they want more news about health care, followed by climate/environment and education. Respectively, those topics ranked 7th, 5th and 11th out of more than a dozen topics in terms of demand.

Similarly, only 5% of total U.S. adults surveyed said they want more sports coverage, but sports has the third-highest demand, according to Parse.ly.

Laura Hazard Owen: Even people who like paying for news usually only pay for one subscription

Publishers worldwide are installing paywalls, but many — even most — won’t succeed. Private WhatsApp groups are becoming the default for sharing and discussing news in non-Western countries. Trust in the media is down worldwide. And more people say they avoid the news now than did in 2016, with a particularly large increase in news avoidance in the U.K.

These are some of the findings from a big new report out Tuesday evening from Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. The Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report for 2019 surveyed more than 75,000 people in 38 countries about their digital news consumption. (Included in the report for the first time this year: South Africa.)

The research is based on YouGov surveys conducted earlier this year, followed by in-person interviews with young people in the U.S. and U.K. The report includes a number of findings on fake news, misinformation, and trust in the media, which I’ll include in this week’s in Friday’s fake news column.


Political Science, Survey Research, and Other Nerdy Things

Douglas R.Pierce and Richard R.Lau, “Polarization and correct voting in U.S. presidential elections”. Electoral Studies August 2019

Although some political pundits have expressed concern that political polarization has a deleterious effect on voter behavior, others have argued that polarization may actually benefit voters by presenting citizens with clear choices between the two major parties. We take up this question by examining the effects of polarization on the quality of voter decision making in U.S. presidential elections. We find that ideological polarization among elites, along with ideological sorting and affective polarization among voters, all contribute to the probability of citizens’ voting correctly. Furthermore, affective polarization among the citizenry if anything strengthens, not weakens, the influence of political knowledge on voter decision-making. We conclude that to the extent that normative democratic theory supposes that people vote for candidates who share their interests, polarization has had a positive effect on voter decision-making quality, and thus democratic representation, in the United States.


What I'm Reading and Working On

I’m still reading and working on a review of Jared Diamond’s “Upheaval”, which I find problematic and troubling in a few ways. But the prose is actually very enjoyable. I’m also re-reading Michael Lewis’s “The Undoing Project”, which is a great portrait of the lives and work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and which I constantly reference.

I’m currently crunching a lot of data on debate effects in presidential primary elections, which are bigger than you might think.


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