June 30, 2019 📊What does the first 2020 primary debate mean for the Democrats?

Plus, post-debate takes and what the data are saying about the electoral impacts of demographic change

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 wrote yesterday about the dumb mistakes that some prominent pundits are making in analyzing the impacts of the Democrats’ first 2020 nomination debate, which was held last week in Miami, that put their leftward shift on nationally-televised display. I will expand a bit on this here, arguing that what NYT Op-Ed writer Bret Stephens is missing in his analysis of the Democrats is that he is a completely atypical voter, obtuse to the impacts of racial animus and divorced from the pulse of the average American voter.

There were some great data-driven pieces written this week, some about politics and other not. As always, I’ve linked to those below.

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—Elliott


This Week's Big Question

What does the first 2020 primary debate mean for the Democrats?

I lay out the critique that some, like Bret Stephens, are missing (or blind to)

Image: Doug Mills/The New York Times

The Democrats held their first 2020 primary debates last Wednesday and Thursday (as I’m sure 99% of y’all are aware). I came out of them with several key lessons both for the primary and the general elections, which I’ve sent already to subscribers of this newsletter. On the former, I’ve said that Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris performed well (something the polling data *kinda* backs up—more on that later) and that Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke did not, helping and hurting their odds of victory accordingly. On the matter of general elections, I think that Democrats are well-positioned to nominate a qualified candidate (not Marianne Williamson) who can come to the general election with a relatively clean political slate and properly take on Donald Trump.

NYT columnists Bret Stephens and David Brooks had different takes, both writing that the Democrats show an increasingly liberal bent on economic policy that is going to doom them in 2020. That is far from the truth, I think. I focused a lot of my newsletter yesterday on how David Brooks is simply a woefully inadequate political pundit, something that is largely due to his political innumeracy. Here’s a bit of what I wrote on the matter:

No, 35% of Americans are not moderates, David Brooks. No, Bret Stephens, moving left on economic policy is not what lost Hillary Clinton a key number of votes among working class whites in the Midwest. Racism and hostile sexism did. And that’s why Democrats’ increasing liberalness (on economic policy)—which has been overstated by media outlets like the one that employs Brooks and Stephens—is not what would doom them. Being on the right side of the conversation re: diversity sadly could.

I also had some words for Stephens:

Brooks then launches into a laundry list of policies on which he disagrees with the liberal Democratic position. This is the same thing that Stephens does in his post-debate column this week. But Kalmoe and Kinder also have another lesson in their book for the two writers: The average American voter is so divorced from such nuanced ideological conversations that the columnist’s arguments implicitly fall apart. For Jill and Joe Schmoe, policy differences largely don’t matter. They are “innocent of ideology”, Kalmoe and Kinder (and Phil Converse before them) write.

He (Stephens) has since responded to his critics, but he totally misses the point. So I'm going to write more about this here. Today’s post will be less data-focused and make more normative arguments than the last one (so if you’re one of my followers who disagrees with my morals, go ahead and skip this read).

Stephens said on Twitter that he is simply trying to make the point that “the left is driving away” the voters they need to defeat Trump—voters like him, he says, but also moderate Obama-Trump voters. This group is opposed to enacting ambitious (and expensive) economic and health care policy, he says, which is fair enough except that it’s not entirely true. In a recent report for the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, political scientists Lee Drutman, Vanessa Williamson and Felicia Wong find that 19% of Republicans held economic policy positions closer to the average Democrat than the average Republican. Only 70% of these voters have decided on Trump for 2020. 45% of the poorest Republicans—many of whom are among this group—favor “taxing the right more”, according to the report. It is patently false that they are conservative when it comes to economic policy. (For more on that study, read my piece for The Economist.)

Stephens alas says that Democrats are losing these voters because they are moving too far to the left. Which might be right, except that it’s probably not given that he has written this exact take 3 times already.

I am not opposed against an article-drafting process wherein one throws shit on a wall to see what sticks, but you’re supposed to do that before your piece goes to print.

To his credit, Stephens is not entirely derivative this time. He now writes that white Trump voters are opposed to racial liberalization, which a candidate like Kamala Harris would only remind them of. That is fine to say so long as (A) he is actually right this time and (B) he’s making legitimate arguments (e.g. not for argumentation’s sake). He appears to fails on the latter account.

Interestingly and without knowing it, Stephens does actually make the proper point that Trump voters are opposed to liberal economic policies not because they don’t want an ambitious welfare state—or know enough about economic policy (my commentary)—but because they want those welfare benefits to flow to “us” (white people) and not “them” (immigrants). He writes of this as a simple in-group vs out-group dynamic, but misses the connection, probably because it describes his own worldview.

Stephens’s piece is mostly a legitimization of the “us”-vs-“them”, racially prejudiced world view that many Heartland whites possess. This would be fine and worthwhile if that worldview was morally legitimate, but it is not, which is why Bret has received a mass of “moral bullying” in response to his article. I would make the case here that explaining the worldview is fine, but you’re not supposed to defend it, and it’s a horrible idea to empathize with it. This is the morally corrupt way to explain racial conservatism in America.

There is also a less nuanced criticism of Stephens’s post-debate take, which is that he is completely unrepresentative of the voters who he claims are the ones that Democrats need to win. Bret is an educated elite urban-dweller with at least some liberal social ideas and a clearly anti-left stance on economic policy, a world apart from the typical Obama-Trump voter. At least when policy matters to them—which is not often—they indicate that they are actually rather liberal on policy minutiae (see: Drutman et. al. 2019 and Stimson 2013). (Of course, as I wrote yesterday, policy doesn’t persuade voters to one side or another.)

There’s also the point that debate that Bret is having with other educated elite journalists is wholly unrepresentative of how the average voter is evaluating politics, because again, they don’t see politics through the ideological lens that they do.

I will add, of course, that it is entirely plausible that Democrats have moved too far left on racial/social/lifestyle issues to appeal to the key voters that might deliver them an electoral college victory next fall. The 2008/12 Democrats that Trump won to his side were much more socially conservative than the ones that stuck with Hillary through 2016. The conservatives Democrats that do remain could very well be turned off by Kamala Harris when she says that she would give universal health care to undocumented immigrants (not least because she is black). But the popular mindset that these voters find themselves in is not worth legitimizing, as Bret does. Instead of giving this worldview a proper account, he empathizes with it. He shouldn’t; it’s racist. Call a spade a spade.


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


Posts for subscribers:

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Political Data

From me for The Economist: “In their first primary debate Democrats focused on the issues”

According to an analysis of the first Democratic debate by The Economist, the vast majority of the candidates’ time—more than 70%—was spent discussing specific policies. Elizabeth Warren, a senator from Massachusetts, and Julián Castro, a former housing secretary, impressed with their command of health-care and immigration policy. These issues took up 10% and 9% of the debate, respectively. Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, meanwhile, spoke at length about economic and foreign policy, which each represented about 10% of debate time. Other topics, such as climate change and gun control, received less attention.

Robert P. Jones (The Atlantic): “The Electoral Time Machine That Could Reelect Trump”

As I described in my 2016 book, The End of White Christian America, something remarkable has happened in the past decade: For the first time in our history, the United States ceased to be a majority white Christian country; white Christians were 54 percent of the population in 2008 but only 47 percent in 2014. Since the book’s publication, those trends have continued unabated. According to data from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), where I am CEO, only 43 percent of the country identified as white and Christian by the 2016 election, and this number drops again to 41 percent in the most recent 2018 data. Notably, the white evangelical Protestant subgroup, the group that threw 80 percent of its votes behind Trump in 2016, has experienced a similar decline. White evangelical Protestants dropped from 21 percent of the population in 2008 down to 17 percent in 2016 and further to 15 percent by 2018, according to PRRI studies.

These trends seem to fly in the face of the electoral results in 2016. While white Christians composed only 43 percent of the population in 2016, they constituted an estimated 55 percent of voters. And although white evangelical Protestants composed only 17 percent of the public in 2016, they were 26 percent of voters. In other words, in the electorate, white Christians overall were 12 percentage points overrepresented, and white evangelical Protestants were nine percentage points overrepresented.

Aaron Bycoffe and Julia Wolfe (FiveThirtyEight): “Who Won The First Democratic Debate?”

So we’re partnering with Morning Consult to track how feelings about the candidates change by interviewing the same group of voters — people who say they’re likely to vote in the Democratic primary — before and after the first two primary debates.

Among all 20 candidates, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Julián Castro earned the highest scores for their debate performances relative to their favorability rating before they took the stage, according to the voters in our poll. Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker also rated well, but their scores were more in line with their pre-debate favorability. Meanwhile, voters didn’t exactly think Beto O’Rourke did badly on Night 1, but his grades were underwhelming given his popularity.

NOTE: While I applaud FiveThirtyEight’s use of polling to inform the narrative around the debates, it seems like the data they’re getting from Morning Consult could be of mixed quality. Not only do they have a rapidly diminishing sample over the course of the three interviews, which can make a sample more biased toward certain answers (this is called “panel attrition”, btw), but they haven’t re-weighted the interviewees to be demographically representative of the first panel, so movement could be phantom sampling error. We’ll see if this shows up in the aggregates.

Rob Griffin, William H. Frey, and Ruy Teixeira (CAP): “States of Change”

In the intervening 36 years, two important trends reshaped the American electorate. First, immigration from Asia and Central and South America slowly diversified the voting population. Second, the educational attainment rates of young Americans increased, resulting in a marked rise in the number of Americans with a college education.

As a result of that first trend, about three-quarters (74 percent) of voters in 2016 were white. Almost 9 in 10 (88 percent) Republican voters in that election were white—a 7-point decline that mirrored the changes occurring in the overall voting population. By contrast, just 6 in 10 (60 percent) Democratic voters were white, a shift twice as large as the one observed among Republican voters and voters overall.

As a result of both trends, the percent of voters who were white noncollege dropped a dramatic 25 points over 36 years. By 2016, this group made up just 44 percent of voters.

Throughout this period, white noncollege voters have consistently made up a larger share of Republican voters. The gap between Republican and Democratic voters for this group was smallest in 1992 (64 percent versus 54 percent) and 1996 (62 percent versus 51 percent) but never dipped below a 10-point difference during this period.


Other Data and Cool Stuff:

Ilia Blinderman (The Pudding): “The Anti-Vaccine Chronicles”


Political Science, Survey Research, and Other Nerdy Things

Matt Grossmann on Twitter: Media coverage of debates is a large mediator of their effects (my commentary):


What I'm Reading and Working On

I’m wrapping up a months-long project on elections in America for The Economist this week. It’s the most innovative statistical analysis that we have published in our graphics-focused Graphic Detail section yet. I’ll share more when it’s done. Economist readers can of course see it in their mailboxes on Saturday.


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