The Crosstab Weekly Newsletter 📊 March 10, 2019

The last week in politics has been one big lesson in asymmetric political ideology. + Fox and Cohen, and "partisan blinders" for economic voting.

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 newsletter 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. Let’s jump right in! Feedback? Drop me a line or just respond to this email. 

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This Week's Big Question

Democrats argue about issues. Republicans argue about ideology (and, post-2016, Trump). What’s new? “Socialism.”

64 percent of registered voters think the Democrats are supporting of socialism, according to a Harvard CAPS/Harris poll. In the broader context of politics in 2019, this is really unsurprising — even when the vast majority of Democrats aren’t real socialists.

Former Colorado Governor and candidate for the 2020 Democratic nomination John Hickenlooper officially entered the Democratic field for governor last Thursday. His campaign rollout included a variety of media interviews. In one interview with Joe Scarborough on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Hickenlooper answered a question typical of 2019’s “gotcha!” journalism: on whether or not he supports capitalism over socialism. Hickenlooper, who co-founded the Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver, responded “Oh, I don’t know — again, the labels, I’m not sure any of them fit.” That didn’t do for country club former-Republican Joe, and sensationalist takes ensued, such as Howard Schultz tweeting “If even a successful businessman and entrepreneur like Governor Hickenlooper can't openly support capitalism in the Democratic primary, it's clear this is Senator Sanders' party now.”

Today (Sunday), Hickenlooper clarified his original response. On CBS’s Face The Nation Hickenlooper said:

“I’m happy to say I’m a capitalist, but I think at a certain point the labels do nothing but divide us, and what I’m trying to build this campaign around is as a country we’ve got to stop finding every excuse to divide ourselves."

That’s probably a more appealing response to the mainstream politicos, especially those in the media, who haven’t responded to over-blown allegations of socialism in the Democratic Party well at all. Their coverage as the Democrats as extremists equal to the far-right orientation of the Republicans is damaging to our politics and a good example of bad-faith both sides-ism. More on this in a bit.

Let’s now back up. Why is this important? It’s just the latest example of a long-standing difference between the two parties: the difference between issue/group identity-based and symbol-based constructions of ideology. In their book Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats political scientists Matt Grossmann and David A. Hopkins lay out a historical argument to this point. Democrats have been able to find success by offering different policy positions to different members of their “big-tent” coalition party, whereas Republicans have relied on the symbolic ideology of conservatism, Republicanism, and, now, Trumpism. For more on that last bit, read up on last week’s CPAC convention and a reactionary party that was destined to produce Trump.

Grossmann and Hopkins say that Democrats make political arguments mostly by offering policy proposals and discussing loyalty to their group members, whereas Republicans make their arguments via a loyalty to their ideology and the party. In turn, Democrats play “identity politics” more than Republicans do, and Republicans rely more on identity with their conservatism. This difference in identity shows up in a recent Harvard CAPS/Harris poll (graphic from Matt Grossmann on Twitter):

Democrats are split between being moderate, liberal, progressive/socialist and an Obama supporter, whereas almost all Republicans are on board with being a conservative Republican (of one definition or another). If you were to infer what a Republican might say to attack a Democratic candidate — especially in an age of heightened affective partisan polarization — the expected attack lines for Republicans looks strikingly to President Trump’s comments at CPAC last week:

“The future belongs to those who believe in freedom. […] We believe in the American dream, not the socialist nightmare.”

In a lot of ways, this line is actually much closer to Republican Part orthodoxy than the way Trump campaigned in 2015 and 2016, when he pushed back on intra-party pressure to call for cutting social services like Medicaid and Social Security. The recent coverage of Democrats as socialist has reached new heights:

This has had an effect on the voters. According to a Harvard CAPS/Harris poll last week, 64% of all voters believe that the Democratic Party is supporting socialism (graphic via Matt Grossmann on Twitter):

This is all to say that the recent GOP-pushed characterization of Democrats as socialists fits within the broader context of what we know about the party. But the magnitude of the characterization is different this time, and it is having large effects.

It’s also worth noting, of course, that the Democrats are not socialists, at least not most of them. As Ella Nilsen and Dylan Scott write for Vox, the “Silent Majority” of Democratic House members, especially the freshman Reps, are moderates. Or, as one of my favorite political scientists Nathan Kalmoe put it, this is “The latest in the ‘ppl don’t know wtf they’re talking about’” series. He added, sharply, “But their fault (if any) is in whom they choose to follow, and they’re clearly misled. Political attentiveness is worse than complete disengagement when the leaders are dumpster fires.”

I’ll go further to say that media coverage of Democrats as socialists is not only wrong, but dangerous. These mischaracterizations are coming at a time when people are paying attention to politics like never before. And like Thomas Mann and Ornstein wrote, and Julian Zelizer tweeted about below, they risk diverting focus from the real extremists in Washington: Republicans, specifically those who have endeavored to cripple our Democratic institutions for their own power-seeking in the modern era. We risk turning a lot of people off to the real damage being done to our democracy.

Mitch McConnell made this point eloquently for me last week when he laid out his justification for why the Senate isn’t taking up HR 1, the electoral/government reform bill, but will vote on the Green New Deal as “Because I get to decide what we’re voting on.” The real reason, of course, is because McConnell wants to show how unpopular the GND is in the Senate, but doesn’t want to risk putting up a sensible reform policy for a vote because it deprives the Republicans of some key electoral advantages via voter suppression and partisan gerrymandering.

In sum, the discussion we’re seeing about Democrats as “socialists” (they’re not) is a hallmark of Republican politicking. We should remind ourselves about what we’ve learned about political extremism, and the media discussion thereof, in the past.

And now, the best stuff I read and wrote last week:

Political Data

Carrie Dann (NBC News): “Poll: More Americans see Democratic positions on climate, health care, abortion as 'in the mainstream'“

“More Americans see the Democratic Party’s positions on climate change, health care, abortion and immigration as being “in the mainstream” than the Republican Party’s positions on those issues, a new poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal finds. And on fiscal issues like taxes and spending, a similar share of Americans — about half — view the Democratic and Republican parties as being in the mainstream.”

Dhrumil Mehta and Oliver Roeder (FiveThirtyEight): “How Cable News Reacted To The Cohen Hearing”

“How an outlet condenses a big event like the Cohen hearings can shade how its audience interprets the events. And when it came to cable news, the networks differed in their coverage of the hearing’s aftermath, as you might expect. But an analysis of how the words used by each network differed is a window into how they’re framing the threats to Trump’s presidency. MSNBC, for example, appeared particularly focused on the legal implications of the hearing — on Robert Mueller and prosecutors. CNN was heavy on issues of credibility, money and payments, and the claim by Cohen that Trump is a “racist.” And Fox News was especially focused on other news altogether, namely what was happening thousands of miles away, where Trump was sitting down with Kim Jong Un.”

Stephen Wolf on the process of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact:

“Delaware Democrats could finally pass a bill this year to join the National Popular Vote Compact for the Electoral College. This map shows how Delaware is a one of several states where Dems could do so before 2020 (Note: CO's Dem gov still has to sign it)”

(Also read Nathaniel Rakichs’ “The Movement To Skip The Electoral College Is About To Pass A Major Milestone”)

Ariel Edwards Levy (HuffPost): “One Reason To Be Cautious About Those 2020 Horserace Polls”

“It’s tough to poll a race when nobody’s exactly sure who is running.”

John Jacobs: “Support for Deportation Doesn’t Come From Where You’d Expect”

“Congressional districts with higher support for deportation also tend to believe white people don’t have advantages because of their skin color. And most districts that have high support for deportation and low belief in white privilege also have lower than average unauthorized immigrants per capita in their state. Intergroup contact theory might offer some insight on this phenomenon. Contact theory proposes that a person’s prejudices against another demographic dissipate when they experience positive interactions with people in that demographic. But those positive interactions can’t happen if the demographics are never introduced. It’s easier to believe in a stereotype if you’re not surrounded by people who contradict it.”

Geoffrey Skelley (FiveThirtyEight): “We Re-Ordered The Entire Democratic Primary Calendar To Better Represent The Party’s Voters”

“Few things stay the same from one presidential primary season to another, but one remains constant: Iowa holds its caucuses first, and New Hampshire follows with its first-in-the-nation primary. But kicking off the primary season with these two states might not make sense for Democrats. These are two of the whitest states in the country, which makes their populations a poor reflection of the increasingly diverseDemocratic Party.”

Other Data and Cool Work

From me last week (The Economist): “Climate change will affect more than the weather”

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux and Julia Wolfe (FiveThirtyEight): “Is The Russia Investigation Really Another Watergate?”

“Nearly two years after special counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to investigate possible Russian interference in the 2016 election, he appears to be nearing the end of his work. We don’t know what new information we’ll gain from Mueller’s report, but here’s how his investigation currently stacks up to other special counsel investigations:”

Political Science, Survey Research, and Other Nerdy Things

Gregory Eady, Jonathan Nagler, Andy Guess, Jan Zilinsky, and Joshua A. Tucker :“How Many People Live in Political Bubbles on Social Media? Evidence From Linked Survey and Twitter Data”

Most liberals follow center or left-leaning news, but many conservatives follow extreme-right content, such as Breitbart.

Kathleen M. Donovan, Paul M. Kellstedt, Ellen M. Key, and Matthew J. Lebo: “Motivated Reasoning, Public Opinion, and Presidential Approval"”

“Using time series data from 1981 to 2015, we find that presidential approval is increasingly untethered from economic assessments. [….] On one hand, this finding might be celebrated: the president has long been held accountable for an economy that is composed of many moving parts, and of which the president controls only a few. If citizens were indeed assessing the president with a more nuanced understand of how the economy works and the role the president plays in it, our findings might be cause for celebration. However, as we argue, it is more likely that presidential approval has fallen prey to the partisan blinders that have affected so many of the public’s opinions.”

AKA, “It’s not the economy, stupid.”

Matt Grossmann on Ideology and partisan identification:

Matt Grossmann @MattGrossmann
People who self-identify as conservative but hold liberal policy positions vote for Republicans by a 2-1 margin:… Only voters who hold liberal positions on both economics & social issues vote Democrat, either/or vote Republican:…

A figure from Drew Engelhardt’s (unpublished) dissertation: racial attitudes are still sorting along partisan lines

David A Hopkins: “In Fox Debate Flap, the Press Defends Its Power to Pick Presidents”

“With the mixed track record of the media-dominated nomination process over half a century of history, perhaps both national committees deserve some deference to tinker strategically with aspects of the current system without facing attacks from journalists acting as if their personal honor has been outrageously besmirched by rank partisan interlopers. For some, it may not be easy to conceive of a situation where the interest of the public is not aligned by definition with that of the press, or is instead more closely matched with that of the perennially-maligned party organizations.”

What I'm Reading and Working On

I’m reading Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels today and I recommend everyone do the same.


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