Category Archives: Elections

The Stars In Our Eyes

P.T. Barnum, flapdoodle merchant and bunkum plugger par excellence, got filthy rich by embracing the premise that the vast majority of Americans are chumps. Stitch a monkey’s head to a fish tail and say it’s a mermaid and they’ll believe it (and pay to see it). Ask for a nickel to see the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington and credulous hands will dip into pockets. There’s no real evidence that Barnum actually said “there’s a sucker born every minute,” but, boy, he sure put that hypothesis to the test.

Barnum is, of course, best known as a showman and entertainer, a sort of nineteenth-century mashup of Donald Trump, Robert Ripley and the Kardashian family. What’s less known about him is that he was also a politician. He served several terms in the Connecticut legislature, was elected mayor of Bridgeport, and was a serious candidate for the United States House of Representatives (he lost in a tough race to his cousin, William Henry Barnum).

In the political arena Barnum was a lot more serious than the carnival huckster caricature he left to history.  He was a vocal advocate of progressive causes (notably equality of African Americans), a big wheel in the temperance movement, and helped found Bridgeport’s hospital. It’s a fair bet, though, that Barnum’s take on voters wasn’t too far removed from his assessment of the gulls he hornswoggled with tabloid sensationalism and sideshow hoaxes. Indeed, he basically said as much, writing with more than a bit of a wink that, “need I explain to my own beloved countrymen that there is humbug in politics?”

While Barnum was far from the first to point out that that politics involves a heavy ration of babble and balderdash, he probably understood better than most that Americans are not policy wonks. Not even close. They respond less to ten point plans than a bit of glam and glitter, they like to see government magnificoes dusted with a bit of star power. Nobody likes a politician, but we love our celebrities. As a group we are quick to conflate fame with accomplishment, to assign to VIPs on the other side of the velvet rope the power to make our economy cabin lives better.

Indeed, there is a very long list of TMZ tribunes the electorate has put into office. And after all, why not? Looking good on camera or possessing a preternatural ability to fling around an inflated leather bladder surely is qualification enough for office? Barnum, of all people, would get that we’ve elected governors because they’re famous wrestlers (Jesse Ventura) or body builders (Arnold Schwarzenegger), people to Congress because they were TV stars, singers or comedians (e.g. Fred “Gopher from Love Boat” Grandy, Ben “Cooter from Dukes of Hazzard” Jones, Sonny “I got you babe” Bono, Al Franken). We elected a movie star to the presidency in the 1980s (Ronald Reagan). In the 1990s voters in Tennessee made silver screen make-believe a reality by voting Fred Thompson–an actor known for playing politicians–into the United States Senate. Big light names from sports have also traded stardom for a political career, including luminaries from the big three of football (Jack Kemp, Steve Largent, Tom Osborne), basketball (Bill Bradley), and baseball (Jim Bunning).

Given this, it’s hard to be surprised over serious speculation that the next presidential election might come down to a contest between an incumbent best known for being a combative staple of reality TV and a famous talk show host. A duo so famous pretty much all Americans know them just by the first names–Donald and Oprah. And what better place for Oprah to float a presidential campaign trial balloon than at a celebrity awards show. Winfrey’s speech at last week’s Golden Globes kicked off an enthusiasm for a White House run that hit “yes we can!” levels in some Democratic circles.

If this is where politics is headed–and let’s face it, we’ve been shuffling down this road for a while– maybe we should go the whole hog and start appointing people to run the government from the same talent pool. What about Johnny Galecki as secretary of education, he plays an academic on TV (Prof. Leonard Hofstadter from The Big Bang Theory). Kevin Costner for secretary of agriculture, he played a farmer in Field of Dreams. Maybe Tom Hanks or Tom Brady to run the Defense Department (Hanks was a great soldier in Saving Private Ryan and Brady is a pretty good field general).  Make Whoopi Goldberg attorney general–given her stands on The View, she seems pretty into justice.

This all makes about as much sense as picking our presidents from the ranks of the red carpet and Entertainment Tonight set. If we’ve lost our faith in expertise, after all, why not put our faith in people who are not experts, but play experts for our amusement? The big argument against doing this sort of thing, of course, is that it’s wackadoodle crazy. It’s like choosing a surgeon for your cardiac procedure from the cast of Grey’s Anatomy. Or maybe like choosing a president because he stands in the public arena like Maximus from Gladiator and smugly says, “are you not entertained!”

Which is to say, it’s not crazy at all from preferences historically and currently expressed by the American voter. Doesn’t matter how serious the stakes, we want to be entertained, not be responsible, and certainly not responsibly led.  To achieve that we’re perfectly willing to believe political plot lines and promises that make no sense outside a scriptwriter’s fevered dreams or Jerry Springer’s studio. We are, in short, pretty much what PT Barnum thought we were. Suckers.


Winning is a Loser for the GOP

Roy Moore (R-19th Century) lost to Doug Jones (D-Surprised) in Alabama’s special election to replace Jeff Sessions (R-I Don’t Recall). But it’s not really clear who actually won. Dems–and certainly Jones–might take issue with that. Well, fair enough, it would be churlish not recognize this as a big fat blue W, a triumph achieved in the reddest of red states. As those sort of wins are rare as principled legislators on the Senate floor, it’s hard to begrudge them a whoop and a victory lap.

Funnily enough, though, this was also a win for Republicans or, to be more accurate, the least painful form of defeat. In this election, no positive outcome was possible for the GOP. Moore gets elected and Republicans either seat someone credibly charged with sexual abuse of minors, or expel one of their own. Political hot potato doesn’t do that scenario justice. That’s a tuber of incandescent sizzle, a pickup-sized root vegetable packing more capsaicin than a jalapeno. A Moore win would have forced the Senate GOP to choke down that sucker whole while the entire nation watched their faces turn red and tears squirt from their eyes. No sane Republican wanted that for their party; it would’ve been preface to civil war or moral disarmament, and maybe both.

Some Republicans–Donald Trump and the RNC–were clearly willing to take those risks and threw in their lot with Moore. Plenty of other Republicans–Mitch McConnell, Jeff Flake, Richard Shelby, Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, etc.–approached the special election with clearer eyes and colder calculations about the costs of a Moore victory. The GOP grownups actively opposed Moore and/or supported Jones for a simple reason. The only way forward they could see for their party was to have their own candidate lose. Tuesday’s result gave this pretty large group of Republicans what they wanted. They won. By losing.

Unfortunately for Republicans, their through-the-looking-glass political calculus of gaining political victories with defeats is not limited to this one special election. The no-Moore gambit isn’t a one-off tactical hit, a losing a battle to win a war sort of thing. The Republican Party seems to have adopted a full blown strategy of winning by losing. They won the presidency, but lost the dignity of that office. They won a Congressional majority, but lost the ability to govern themselves. They won control of government, but lost the faith of the people. They won power, but seem to have lost their soul. When you’re reduced to calculating whether to support a suspected pedophile or attack a candidate fair-and-square selected by your own voters, you really are at the point where losses count as wins.

Voters on Tuesday, no doubt, saved the Republican Party an enormous amount of humiliation and discomfort. Yet while Alabama prevented the GOP from publicly airing its crimson hide in a painful expulsion debate, this was balm for a symptom rather than a cure for the underlying problem. The problem is the Republican Party is imploding under its own success. They have somehow got themselves into a corner where their “victories” exact enormous–potentially existential–political costs. Yet they can’t afford too many losses, because losing runs the risk of exposing the GOP as a party more than willing to lose its principles as long as it wins power.

Thinking Republicans–and, despite recent evidence to the contrary, there’s still plenty of these folks around–not only recognize this, they’re agonizing over it. This list includes people like Charlie Sykes, David Brooks, George Will, Jeff Flake, and many more, a long list of those reluctant to accept a majority stake in government for their party if it means choking down the populist-flavored Kool-Aid Donald Trump is serving up.

So where does this leave the Republican Party? Other than cleaved in two, it’s hard to say. The populist and establishment wings are openly warring with each other and it’s not clear what, if anything, holds them together as a coherent political force. There’s no discernible consistent philosophical or intellectual principle driving its policy agenda. The primary motivation behind the party increasingly seems to be the pursuit of power because it makes it easier to stick it to a varied group of people and institutions–immigrants, the poor, environmentalists, scientists, the media, public schools, higher education, and especially Democrats–they see as causing them grief.  The closest thing to a guiding set of principle seems to be an infomercial pitch that the new and improved tax-cuts-for-the-rich will cure everything–Unemployment! Manufacturing malaise! Healthcare! Whooping cough! Zits! This doesn’t seem to be fooling anyone any more, including large swaths of the party faithful. It’s getting harder and harder even for GOP stalwarts to buy into the populist piffle and accusatory tweet storms that increasingly characterize Republican governance.

Maybe the party could win by suffering a massive loss in the 2018 midterms. A period in the wilderness might give it a shot at reflection and rejuvenation, or at least a chance for its dueling wings to get into the full-throated death match members of both camps are clearly lusting for. Whoever emerged from that throw-down would at least give us a clear idea of whether the GOP really wants to be the center-right party of Reagan or the champion of alt-right populism. Regardless, if they retain control of government in their current state there’s a very real possibility they cease to be a viable political party in any form, at least over the long term.  Unfortunately for the GOP, its midterm opponent is the Democratic Party, which rarely misses an opportunity to snatch defeat from the mandibles of victory. So, Republicans might have one more victory left in them. And that means they will lose. By winning.

Moore or Less

Come December 12, the good citizens of Alabama will go to the polls and choose either an alleged pedophile or a Democrat to represent them in the United States Senate. It looks like it’ll be a close call. On the one hand, Republican candidate Roy Moore increasingly looks like a Harvey Weinstein-level perv. On the other hand, his opponent, Doug Jones, has a sordid personal story that makes him equally repellent to the good burghers of ‘Bama. Did I mention he’s a Democrat? Sure, Moore might have had an unhealthy interest in teenyboppers, but at least he doesn’t bear the mark of the beast — a “D” next to his name on the ballot.

The question of whether Alabama will go for the Dem or the deviate has created exactly the sort of migraine Republicans at the national level did not want or need. There is no good endgame here for the GOP. If Moore is elected they either have to accept a tribune of astonishing political toxicity into their midst, or vote to expel one of their own. The former increasingly seems like a non-starter–the last thing Republicans need going into the 2018 midterms is to have GOP interpreted “Grand Old Pedobears” by large swaths of suburbia. Sounds snappy and fits on a bumper sticker, but it’s not exactly a vote winner. Recognizing the potential damage to the party brand, Senator Cory Gardner–the guy running the Republican senate’s fundraising arm–has flatly argued for expulsion if Moore wins. Huge chunks of the GOP caucus have already declared Moore hotter than a two-dollar pistol, so there’s little doubt about the outcome if it comes to an expulsion vote.

Actually going through that process, though, would be the political equivalent of a Tabasco enema for Republicans in the Senate, an unpleasant procedure that’ll leave their butts stinging for some time.  Voting to expel Moore effectively requires them to publicly declare a member of their own party just got elected who is spectacularly, breathtakingly, unqualified, a guy whose character flaws are so deep they render him unfit to wield the power of political office. No doubt, Democrats will be happy to run with that: “They said it, not us. And come to think of it, does that description apply to any other Republican currently high up in the government you can think of?” The only silver lining in this scenario is that the Alabama governor would get to appoint someone to replace Moore, and presumably that would be a Republican who was not ick on a stick. All that gets the GOP, though, is back to its current small Senate majority at the low, low price of doing more for Democratic midterm electoral fortunes than actual Democrats (admittedly, that’s not saying much).

That Republicans are openly considering an expulsion vote even before the outcome of the election is known says volumes about just how poisonous Moore is considered to be to the party’s national fortunes. Rogues and mountebanks by the dozen have served in the United States Senate, yet only a handful have ever been expelled. The vast majority of them were Southern senators supporting the Confederate rebellion that precipitated the Civil War. The most recent senators to face the ignominy of having their colleagues give them the elbow were John Ensign in 2011 and Bob Packwood in 1995. Ensign was a Christian values hypocrite, an adulterer condemning Bill Clinton for chasing interns around the Oval Office while handing out financial favors to keep his own extramarital shagging on the QT. Packwood was accused of sexual abuse and/or assault by nearly 20 women. Both resigned before an official expulsion vote was taken.

As Moore seems doggedly determined to see the election through to the end, there’s a decent possibility the Senate will take the first official expulsion vote since 1942. The question back then was whether William Langer’s long history of payola, perjury and corruption made him morally unfit to serve in the upper chamber (the answer was no, he was seated on a 52-30 vote). Nobody in the majority party is going to relish taking a similar vote on Moore, but right now there are only two real options to avoid it.

The first is for the GOP to conjure up some sort of white knight write-in campaign. In other words, get voters to use the fill-in-the-blank option on the ballot to elect some Republican who does not have a reputation for cruising malls looking for underage dates. Moore’s primary opponent Luther Strange has been mentioned, and so has Jeff Sessions, former holder of the seat and current attorney general. That’s an unlikely Hail Mary. For one thing, it probably means getting at least half-a-million voters to show up and spell your name right. For another, you actually need a name and, three weeks out, there isn’t one. Neither Strange nor Sessions nor anyone else has shown much enthusiasm for a campaign short on time and long on improbabilities.

The only other option available is a Jones victory. And at this point, that seems the least awful outcome for the GOP. Some Senate Republicans are openly pulling for the Democrat. The national party has pulled funding, pulled staff, and is pulling its hair out trying to figure out a way to stop Moore. That’s made harder by the fact that Alabama Republicans continue to back him. Bibb County Republican Chair Jerry Pow said he’d vote for Moore even if he was a kiddie canoodler because, well, at least he’s not a Democrat. State Auditor Jim Ziegler defended Moore by saying what he’s accused of is no big deal because Mary was a teen and Joseph an adult so clearly … well, I’m damned if I know. The gist seemed to be that thirty-something dudes hooking up with fourteen-year-olds outside the local mall is biblically kosher or something. I’m not sure about that, though as people of all partisan persuasions reacted to Ziegler’s comments with a slack-jawed “Jesus Christ!” maybe there is a theological argument in there somewhere.

The bottom line is that Roy Moore is hurting the Republican Party. Just how bad the damage is, and how long it lasts, is down to the choice Alabama makes on December 12. For many of the conservative faithful who go to the polls the choice is clearly going to come down to the lesser of two evils. But which one? The Republican Party is clearly hoping that less is not Moore.


The Know Nothing Voter

Figuring out why people vote the way they do has been one of the great obsessions of political science. And, after more than fifty years of sustained scholarly effort dedicated to cracking the code of electoral choice, we’re pretty sure that Democrats vote for Democrats and Republicans vote for Republicans. Outside of that, lots of people seem to vote for lots of candidates and causes for lots of reasons. Why? Damned if we know.

This has not been quite the colossal exercise in academic futility the last paragraph implies. True, we’re still mostly at the head scratching stage of a general explanation of how decision making really goes down in the ballot booth. Along the way, though, we’ve managed to expose the most obvious and common rationales for why people vote the way they do as so much bunk. While no one was looking, political scientists have repeatedly and convincingly demonstrated that democracy–or at least democratic elections–do not work as pretty much everyone assumes they do.

Classic democratic theory presumes voters will take their civic duties seriously and cast their ballots on the basis of reasonable due diligence. In other words, there’ll be a good deal of gathering information on candidates and issues, weighing pros and cons, and cogitating on the consequences to the commonweal of backing Joe Blow or Jane Doe. While allowances are granted for slippage between theory and practice, there’s a general assumption that voters more or less know what they are doing when they show up to the polls to pin the tail on the democratic donkey.

It’s a nice story, sovereignty of the people, wisdom of the crowd and all that. Politicians and civics teachers still enthusiastically repeat the tale. And nothing wrong with the story. I like it too. The problem is it’s mostly fiction. Back in the 1950s Angus Campbell, Philip Converse and Warren Miller crushed the idea that the foundation of our democracy was an informed, judicious civitas. They did this using a lot of survey data and an early form of computer (i.e. a bunch of grad students with adding machines). Their classic study, The American Voter, reported that most citizens know diddly about the substance of who or what they are voting for. Instead, they treat politics like beer. They are loyal to a party brand even though in a blind policy-taste test they couldn’t pick a Clinton Pale Fail from a Trump Lout Stout.

Though The American Voter is now nearly 60 years old, its essential conclusion has held up. Umpteen other studies have data-dived the question to death and arrived at the same basic inference: most people are pig-ignorant about policy and politics. Once they decide–often without much in the way of conscious and reasoned deliberation–that they are a Republican or Democrat, or at least lean one way more than the other, that’s pretty much it. People will often pay attention to politics enough to justify their vote, but more in the sense of rationalizing it than coming up with an actual rationale. In general citizens are remarkably innocent of even the most basic facts and knowledge about politics and the political system, and what they do “know” is often just a mish-mash of dodgy first principles, ersatz ideological whinging, logical fallacy, and political fairy tales. It’s all held together with little more than bumper sticker clichés and social media outrage. To a large extent, that’s what our democracy stands on. Scary, huh?

As you might imagine, broadcasting news of general political illiteracy from the ivory tower is not exactly an exercise calculated to endear political science to the masses. How dare the pointy-headed professoriate cast their elitist aspersions upon the wisdom of masses? And what the heck do we know anyway? People don’t really base their voting decisions on little more than an emotional attachment to the letters “R” or “D” printed on their ballots, do they? Surely issues matter? Isn’t that what all the gum flapping in election campaigns is about? And there’s no way the good burghers of this great nation are shallowly treating elections like some sort of intramural sporting event where Ws and Ls matter more than the fate of the Republic? Sorry to send the broken record of my discipline spinning through one more revolution, but the answers to these questions are: Yes. Mostly no. Mostly not. And, sure as shootin’.

There’s little question that in terms of political IQ the vast mass of the electorate is in Forest Gump territory. Political life is like a box of chocolates with this crew, endless consumption of sweet, sticky carbohydrates that leave you feeling sick. Three-quarters of Americans cannot accurately identify the three branches of government in their own political system. One in three freshman in my introduction to American politics class cannot pass a basic citizenship test (the students who tend do the best on this test tend to be, of all things, Eastern Europeans. Go figure). Shoot, one in five Americans believes the sun revolves around the earth. These Einsteins have either studied the matter in-depth and have a logical rationale and sufficient evidence to reject heliocentrism, or science since the Enlightenment just ain’t their thing.

I’m guessing the latter. Alarming numbers of voters on the right deny evolution and poo-pooh climate change, and just-as-alarming numbers on the left believe vaccinations cause autism and genetically modified plants are bad because, I dunno, Franken-corn or something. Anyway, there’s little doubt that given the choice between the conclusions of the best available science and the spewing of the worst of the confirmation bias commentariat there’s no contest. Huge numbers of Americans choose the latter.

So, the bottom line is we haven’t really figured out why people vote the way they do, but we remain pretty gobsmacked about what voters get up to and the far-out (il)logic deployed to justify it. Along the way, what we have figured out is why government is often so screwed up, from left to right and top to bottom. That government is, fair and square, founded on the choices of voters. Given what we do know about how those choices are made, government dysfunction is not surprising. It’s practically guaranteed.

What’s Your Vote Worth? The Bang for the Ballot Poll Parity Index

The currency of representative democracy is the vote and, at least in theory, we all have the same amount of electoral dough. You, me, Bill Gates and that bum on the street walk to the polls with the same balance in our democratic checkbooks, free to spend our matching funds of republican capital as we wish.

Well, that’s the theory. In reality, of course, our votes are like the oinkers in Animal Farm. Some votes, like some pigs, are more equal than others. What’s your vote really worth? I’ll get to the specifics, but to start with it depends on where you are and who you are. Geography and political partialities combine to create different markets for votes, and those inequalities create arbitrage opportunities that make suckers of some and a tidy political profit for others.

As the party of capitalism, it’s no surprise that Republicans do the better job of taking advantage of market opportunities. If extracting power out of a vote is like squeezing a quarter, the GOP’s vise-like grip is propelling Washington’s false teeth right out of his mouth and into the eagle’s ass on the other side. Democrats, true to their spendthrift reputations, spend votes like sozzled sailors, wake up with electoral hangovers, and think arbitrage is the brand of dodgy bourbon currently corroding their synapses (“give me an arbitrage and coke, I’m gettin’ my vote on.”)

Republicans have what is known in the trade as “greater voting efficiency,” which in English means the GOP gets a bigger electoral bang for the ballot than the Dems. For example, it cost roughly 205,000 Republican votes to “buy” an electoral vote for Donald Trump. It cost Democrats roughly 283,000 votes to nab one of those suckers for Hillary, and after paying 38 percent more per unit they turned around and piddled away five of them on the bright shiny distraction of protest votes. Bernie Sanders, Colin Powell and Faith Spotted Eagle all wound up with one of these expensive honors thanks to Dem electors, and I’m sure all three secretly thought Democrats should maybe lay off the arbitrage a little.

Electoral votes are fire-sale cheap compared to Senate seats, and it’s here that we really start to see Republicans clocking the double discount while Democrats get rooked. In 2016 Republicans coughed up a skosh over 1.7 million votes for each of the 22 United States Senate seats they won. The Dems splashed out an average of 3.8 million votes for a Senate win, and at those prices it’s no wonder they could only afford to buy a dozen rotunda rats. Calculated on a vote-per-seat basis the electoral system was charging the Dems a 200 percent-plus premium over its GOP customers. The invisible hand of our civic market is clearly dapping the GOP and diddling the Democrats big time.

The long and short of it is that a Democratic vote is not worth the same as a Republican vote because it simply does not have the same federal purchasing power. There’s a couple of reasons for this, some of which I’ve already yammered on at length about. States with Lilliputian populations, for example, wield disproportionate influence over the Senate and Electoral College because of apportionment rules, and the GOP has more of them. The GOP also controlled more state legislatures over the past decade, and has used those platforms to gerrymander the snot out of House districts. In Pennsylvania, for example, Democrats scooped up more than half of the state-wide votes for major party House candidates in 2016, but only won a quarter (5 of 18) of the seats. It takes serious partisan chutzpah to pull off that sort of cartographic legerdemain and have the resulting gaggle of sham-district pols toddle off to DC and make will-of-the-people noises, but there you are.

It was actually Pennsylvania that got me thinking what about what a vote was worth. Statewide, Pennsylvania Democrats spent an average 525,000 votes to purchase a single House seat, and Republicans spent about 189,500. The ratio of those two numbers is .36, which means in terms of purchasing power in the House of Representatives, a Democratic vote in PA was worth a paltry 36 percent of a Republican vote. Similar ratios are easily calculated for all states, and I’ve done that in the table below, which reports what I call the Bang for the Ballot Poll Parity Index or BBPPI. I call the acronym “Beepee” for short because it sounds sort of naughty in a juvenile way and so fits the current suck-my-thumb-and-wail state of politics. Oklahoma’s got a teeny Beepee, heh, heh.

*–Average votes for Republican House win / average votes for Democratic House win
#– Average votes for Democratic House win / average votes for Republican House win

Blue states in this table are where Democratic votes are worth more than GOP votes. So, for example, Maryland’s .24 means that a Republican vote there is worth about a quarter of a Democratic vote in terms of its ability to acquire representation in the House. The red states flip the numerator and denominator, so they show how much a Democratic vote is worth compared to a Republican vote. So, for example in Florida, a Democratic vote is worth about a quarter of a Republican vote. The yellow states are places these ratios is more or less 1, in other words they are states where the purchasing power of votes is equal.

A lot of the zeros in the red and blue columns represent pocket-sized constituencies, small population states that only have one House district. In those states one party is always going to end up with zippo House seats, so we shouldn’t get too bent out of shape that Beepees for, say, Vermont and South Dakota show a GOP goose egg in the former and Democratic bupkis in the latter. Still, note there are a number of zero Beepee states with three or more House seats dominated by one party. For example, Democrats got about a third of major party votes in Kansas and didn’t win any of that state’s four House contests. Most of these one-party states are Republican, places where Democrats represent a non-trivial fifth to a third of the voters who effectively have worthless ballots in House races.

The Beepees make a couple of things clear. First, the number of states with actual ballot parity is depressingly small. Only in New York, Arizona and Maine are the vote of a Republican and the vote of a Democrat equal in terms of their ability to buy representation in the so-called people’s House. In just about every other state, the House delegation exaggerates—often by a walloping margin—a party advantage. Some of this is undoubtedly due to how partisan votes are naturally scattered across a state. A lot of it, with even less doubt, is attributable to districts jiggered so politicians can pick their voters rather than letting voters pick their politicians.

Second, in the contest for splattering topological taint on the one-person one-vote yardstick, the GOP is clearly doing a better job than the Democratic Party. The Dems sure have their outposts of democratic duplicitousness, including some big kahuna delegation states like California and Illinois. But any way you slice it there’s a lot more red than blue on this list. On average it’s better to be a Republican voting in a Democratic state (mean Beepee = .40) than a Democrat voting in a Republican state (mean Beepee = .33). Republican votes are worth more even in places where they’re not worth much.

So what’s your vote worth? If you’re a Republican in Texas or a Democrat in California, rejoice. Your vote is worth appreciably more than the suckers toting electoral water for the other party. If you’re anyone in Arizona or Maine, be happy with the knowledge your vote actually meets that rare me-you-Bill-Gates-and-the-bum ideal. But a stonking swath of the electorate is drawing the geographic short end of party parity. For you lot, and there’s definitely a lot of you, my condolences. Now everyone can take a peek at your Beepee and know just how small it is.


A Majority Government Elected by a Minority

H.L. Mencken once described democracy as the idea that the people should get what they want and, “get it good and hard.” That seems about half right. The 115th Congress kicked off this week with a Republican majority pledging to bring the wood. Repeal Obamacare, revoke Planned Parenthood’s funding, rewrite Dodd-Frank—if the GOP makes good on half its vows this is going to be the most give-it-to-the-people Congress in two decades. Problem is, there’s not much evidence that the people actually wanted this, and even less that they wanted Republicans running the show.

It’s common knowledge, of course, that the bitter Twitter critter soon to be nesting in the White House was, by a near 3 million vote margin, the voters’ second choice.  Luckily for him, the will of the people don’t mean beans to the Electoral College, which blew one of its periodic raspberries to democratic humbug like majoritarian citizen preferences. Democrats still aren’t sure whether to attach hope or despair to the popular vote win, but either way the numbers inarguably add up to the fact that most voters wanted a different president from the one they got.

What’s been given less attention is that the voters weren’t exactly full-throated in wanting a Republican-controlled Congress either. I know this because in between downing my ration of holiday calories and festive libations I made it my business to go get official election result data for every congressional election, from all 50 states’ secretaries of state or election boards.* What can I say, I’m a nerd.

I’ve been prodding those numbers for a couple of days, and it’s pretty clear that whatever the American people wanted in a national legislature, they didn’t get that, either. I don’t mean to imply shady shenanigans of the sort hinted at by certain windswept-coiffed incoming presidents or slap-happy Green Party nominees. Nope. The Republican Party won its congressional majorities totally within the rules of our electoral system. The lawful legitimacy of their governmental dominance is not in question (and for those still yammering otherwise, do us all a favor and just get over it—time to stop squealin’ and start dealin’). The democratic legitimacy of gang GOP, though, is another matter.

How can a democratically elected government—elected fair and square by the rules of the system—have questions raised about its democratic legitimacy? Well, if you zoom down to the individual district/state level, you can’t really raise that question. Down in those trenches, Republicans and Democrats went head to head and, generally speaking, the Dems got their butt kicked. Rather than looking at what happened down in the Fourth Gerrymander of state X, though, zoom out and take a look at how the American people as whole cast their ballot. What you find there just doesn’t line up with the government that supposedly represents them.  It’s not even close.

Here are the basic numbers for the United States Senate: In 2016 there were 34 seats up for election, the Republicans won 22 and the Democrats, 12. Republicans scored this smashing victory by getting roughly 7 million fewer votes than Democratic senate candidates.  The total GOP vote haul for Senate was about 38.4 million, nowhere near the roughly 46 million received by Democratic Senate hopefuls. This all translates to Republicans getting 65 percent of the seats available in return for only 46 percent of the votes cast. Stick that in your democratic hookah and suck on it.

How can this be? Well, an obvious part is that Senate districts are states, which have wildly different populations. Republican John Thune only needed 265,000 votes to win in South Dakota. Democrat Kate McGinty got more than ten times that number of votes in Pennsylvania. And lost. If Republicans have the edge in less populous states, and in most cases they do, as a group they can have a lot less voters backing them and find themselves with a comfy majority of seats.

Still, even accounting for that and the fact that incumbents running for Senate in 2016 were mostly Republican (incumbents, all else equal, tend to win), something seems a bit off here. And it is. What is off is California, a population behemoth and deep Democratic blue. Kamala Harris won that Senate race with 7.5 million votes, but she was running against a fellow Democrat—Loretta Sanchez who notched 4.5 million votes. I did not include Sanchez’s votes in my grand tallies of Republican and Democratic totals, so that’s not tipping the scale. But because of California’s goofy blanket primary system there was no Republican Senate candidate in the general election, so the Republicans score a big goose egg in the most vote-rich state in the union. Even a Republican loser was likely to stitch up several million votes in a state as big as California.

So those with Republican loyalties might say an adjustment is warranted here. If we just drop California and deduct Harris’ 7.5 million from the Democratic column, their total drops from 45.9 million to 38.5 million, so roughly the same total as Republicans got.  But even if we just punt Cally from the tally the GOP still gets a massive return on voting investment—basically two-thirds of the seats for the half the ballots cast. That, of course, ignores the counter-argument that Democrats might favor:  If Republicans can’t scrounge up enough support to make it out of a competitive primary, too bad, so sad, and by all rights we should add Sanchez’s total rather than deducting Harris’. If you lean that way, the adjustment is now that Dems snagged roughly eleven million more votes than Republicans. And still got their clocks cleaned. Majorities obviously ain’t all democracy cracks them up to be.

Here’s the numbers on the House. All 435 seats were up for election and Republican candidates totaled roughly 63.7 million votes, which must come as sweet democratic relief to the GOP because it’s actually more than the 61.2 million who voted Democratic. Yes, unlike their colleagues in the White House and the Senate, House Republicans can actually claim to have the backing of national majority. This majority is, proportionally speaking, still a little exaggerated in terms of seats won—Republicans got 51 percent of the vote, but 55.4 percent of the available seats. Still, in at least one of the elective branches here is unassailable evidence that the people wanted the GOP in control, right?

Well, hold on, hoss. That depends. If we do a “California” and exclude races in which Republicans ran unopposed or against another Republican (other states besides California have goofy candidate selection systems), their total drops by roughly five million … giving Democrats the national majority. Of course, if we exclude races where Dems ran unopposed, they lose roughly six million and the Reps shoot into a commanding national vote lead. Rather than argue about this, I’m opting to just go with the raw numbers. Bottom line, the GOP took the House with a 51-49 percent squeaker in the national vote.

So if we take the American people as a whole, this is what they voted for: a Democratic president by a two or three point margin, a Democratic Senate by roughly a ten point margin, and a Republican House by a one or two point margin. If we toss together votes for president, senate and house, Republican candidates got roughly 165 million votes, Democratic candidates got roughly 173 million. In other words, if the will of the people is expressed through their votes, what the people wanted was a government that was largely—or even entirely–controlled by Democrats. What they got was Republicans in control of everything. Again, I emphasize, there’s nothing shady about this in a rules or legal sense. Neither the Senate, the House or the presidency are elected as a whole by the people—they are elected by states or by subdivisions thereof. And what majorities at the state or district level do not necessarily add up to majorities of the people as a whole.

Still, those national numbers do raise a valid concern about democratic legitimacy of what’s about to go down. This Congress, and certainly the incoming president, were not backed by a majority of those who bothered to cast a vote in 2016. They do not represent the will of the American people as whole and, at least in terms of national vote totals, are a minority government. Which is not good. Dems obviously should be pretty steamed about this—they got the most votes, but zilcho in terms of power to show for it. But it’s a concern for Republicans too. They are full-bore committed to using their power to implement an aggressive conservative/populist policy agenda which, anyway you slice and dice the numbers, was not comprehensively endorsed by voters in 2016. Indeed, you can make a pretty solid empirical case that it was systematically rejected.

So there’s a big gamble here for the GOP. If they get their agenda through and it works, they can say, “see, told you things would be better under us,” and have a good shot at having it retrospectively approved by a grateful electorate. If it doesn’t, they basically are a minority government that strong-armed a policy agenda onto an electorate against the will of the voters. In a democratic sense, that’s definitely not good. I’m kind of baffled the media hasn’t twigged to this yet. Sure, I know wrangling numbers is tougher than goggling at the latest Trumpian Tweet squall or keeping up with various Kardashians flashing their naughty bits on Instagram. But jeez, if I can do it, anyone with access to a web connection and spreadsheet software can too.

So, with apologies to H.L., 2016 taught us an unpleasant lesson about democratic theory as it applies to the United States. The people can make clear what they want. And whether they like or not, they’ll get something else. Hard.

*A brief note on the numbers for quant wonks: Data were taken from official results reported on state secretary of state and/or state election board websites. In the vast majority of cases these were certified results. All I collected were major party results, so excluded from all calculations are tallies by the Greens, Libertarians, Constitutionalists, and various and sundry other wannabes and wackaloons who smuggled themselves onto a ballot.

Aside from the weirdness reported in the text above (Democrats running against Democrats and whatnot) there are a small number of anomalies or gaps. For example, the Oklahoma secretary of state reports no results for its First Congressional District (!). That race was won by incumbent Republican Jim Bridenstine, who ran unopposed. I’m assuming that somebody actually, you know, voted for him in the general election, but maybe not. Regardless, Jim’s vote total isn’t totted up in the Republican column because those numbers were not made public and I was too busy with turkey and beer to pester Oklahoma officials to check and see if they had any unopened ballot boxes lying around. In any case, the number of these oddities was pretty small, not biased in a partisan sense, and extremely unlikely to have any impact on the broader nation-level inferences made above. It is, of course, possible that I made a punch error or a similar goof–it’s a lot of friggin’ numbers collected from fifty different sources and I was a lone political scientist in the midst of challenging holiday-related typtophan and ethanol issues. Still, while certainly possible, I’m pretty confident there’s no accounting flub big enough on my part to alter the general conclusions drawn above. My numbers will probably differ a bit from the official, official results reported by the Federal Election Commission later in the year, but barring any major howler on my part, the basic story reported above should stand.

Harry Potter and the Electoral College

Okay everybody, stand back. I’m going to attempt to explain the history, purpose and contemporary political implications of the Electoral College. My legal team insists I issue a disclaimer before doing so. So, fair warning, this is being done on a closed course with an expert driver. Do not attempt at home.

In technical terms, the Electoral College is an over-engineered doohickey connecting the people to the president based on a blueprint found in the “Where’s Waldo?” section of the Constitution.  The result rattles along more or less unnoticed by the masses in an average election cycle because when you fire that sucker up it generally picks the candidate with the most votes. And if the cool POTUS swag goes to the candidate with the preponderance at the polls, well, the electoral accounting seems reasonably kosher even if you don’t get all that electoral vote jazz.  Why bother sweeping back the curtain to investigate the grinder that makes this democratic sausage? The operating manual gives grown lawyers headaches and, besides, that thing is scary.

Every now and then, though, the machine spits out a president that the people clearly did not slide2want. He (it’s always been a he) gets the keys to the Oval Office and the nuclear codes, while the loser consoles themselves with the knowledge that, democratically speaking, they won.  Hillary Clinton got (at least) a couple million more votes than Donald Trump. And lost. This leaves a lot of Americans—a lot of non-Americans too—going, “WTF?” It also prompts much dusting off of hazy memories of a long ago civics course where the Electoral College was discussed as the sleeping giant of the SEC. Or maybe the Big 10. Or something like that. Pretty sure it was one of the major college conferences.

If Google or Wikipedia or that guy on Facebook doesn’t beat us to the punch, that curiosity offers humble folk such as myself that rarest of teaching moments, a miraculous alignment of opportunity, interest, and ignorance where people actually want some of that arcane knowledge we’ve spent careers stuffing into our brains. I intend to take full advantage of this ephemeral attention to matters institutional before everyone goes back to cat videos and fake news. Stand by for Electoral College 101.

First, how exactly the heck does this thing work? I’ll skip all the technical jargon here and just provide highlights of the process that will soon traslide1nsmute Trump into poo-bah of the body politic. During the first full moon in December, when Jupiter is in Mars, 538 electors will gather at the Republic’s sacred Hall of Requirement and bring out the sorting hat. As soon this piece of headgear gets within five meters of the orange Horcrux topping the president-elect’s noggin it’ll yell “Slytherin!” and head for floo network. Canada-bound most likely. We’ll probably have to fish it out of the secret chamber in Justin Trudeau’s sock drawer when we next need it. Anyway, once that formality is out of the way, Chief Supreme Court Justice Snape will administer the oath of office, give the ceremonial order of “ten points from Gryffindor!,” and congressional Dementors can start sucking the life out of Obamacare.

Okay, I can’t back any of that up and J.K. Rowling probably already has the copyright lawyers off the leash. The point is that to the average voter the Electoral College is all flap and fluster, an ancient bit of obfuscation that seems as mystical and magical as Hogwarts. Tell my tall tale at most dinner tables and the most skeptical comment you’ll get is something like, “Fancy that, I never knew the Canadian prime minister had a secret chamber in his sock drawer. Bet it’s something to do with hockey.” The Electoral College is the confundus charm of our democracy.

So why do we have it? In other democracies, national leaders are either chosen directly by popular vote, or by the party with the most seats in the legislature. Why do we alone use this baffling hunk of electoral jiggery-pokery? The answer lies in a disagreement among the Founding Fathers. Half of them didn’t trust the people to pick the president. Too easily fooled that lot, the argument went, they’ll end up getting their clocks cleaned by some tin-pot dictator. The other half didn’t trust Congress to pick the president. Given a chance that gaggle of Machiavellian power trollops will have the executive cleaning out the legislature’s chamber pots.

If the two obvious selection mechanisms were out, though, how to choose a president? Lottery? Seniority? The Supreme Court playing a game of nekkid Twister? Alexander Hamilton pondered this very question in Federalist 68, and as a bona fide Founding Daddy Dude, he’s got as good an answer as any. Hamilton argued that the “sense of the people” should be reflected in the choice of a president, but no way should the scruffy masses be trusted to do the job themselves. Better to have the most powerful office holder elected by men “capable of analyzing the qualities adopted to the station,” who could come up with a “judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.” Yeah, that sounds like Hamilton alright. Power to the people, but big decisions should be left to the grownups.

Anyway, the basic pitch was to have each of the states select a number of wise heads equal to the count of their congressional delegation, and these chosen few would do the actual electing after giving the matter due thought and consideration. The original idea of the Electoral College really did seem to be as a sort of deliberative super-group of prez pickers. At least according to Hamilton this process would weed out unworthy presidential aspirants, the sort of aggrandizing power grubbers with “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity” but little else to recommend them. Needless to say, it hasn’t quite worked out that way (see recent presidential election).

This whole indirect selection machine tends to throw a sprocket for two reasons. The first is the ever-present possibility that a popular vote winner will be an electoral loser. In simple terms, there’s a mild gerrymander baked into the system. Smaller states get to punch above their weight because they are guaranteed two Senators. That means nearly a fifth of the electoral votes are apportioned on the basis of state equality, not population. So California gets one elector for about every 700,000 voters. Wyoming can lay its hands on an electoral vote for less than 200,000 voters. On a population adjusted basis, then, Wyoming voters are way more influential. The upshot is that the electoral vote can seriously distort the popular vote, especially with the right popular vote differences across states.

This tends to be the thing that gets democratic do-gooders all undies-bunched and crying for reform. Yet it seems reasonable that the designers of the system understood this, at least in concept, and saw it as acceptable tradeoff in the indirect election/will of the people/states are sovereigns too calculations of their republican algebra. If the best and brightest political minds in the land converge on a worthy Cincinnatus who can’t snag the popular vote, so be it. The Founders, or at least Hamilton, are down.

It’s really another problem that stops the Electoral College from working as planned. The original merry band of commonwealth creators never really anticipated that states would jettison the whole idea of choosing electors based on political acumen and sagacity, or at least on some modest sense of political independence and commitment to the commonweal.  States have turned selection over to political parties, which didn’t exist at the time of the constitutional convention, and the voters, whom the delegates were dubious about to begin with. Electors these days are not carefully chosen political minds. They are party apparatchiks who can be counted on to vote as a slate for their partisan pin-up boy if he (or she) acquires a popular plurality in their state. And if you want to get the latter, exercising the little arts of popularity isn’t a bad idea.

Most of the time it doesn’t really matter. The presidential selection contrivance fires its parliamentary thingamabobs and engages its procedural whirligigs and the candidate with the most votes starts measuring drapes for the White House. Except sometimes not.  Political parties prize craven fealty to whatever merry-andrew bears their electoral escutcheon, not the will of the people, and certainly not any idealistic commitment to getting the best person for the job. Combine that with party selected electors, asymmetric voting patterns and state influence in the Electoral College and, shazam, you can get a president of arguable talents and democratic legitimacy.   There is no group of father-knows-best grownups to prevent this sort of thing as Hamilton once optimistically promised. With the arguable exception of George Washington’s election, there never was.

So, to get to the big question, can the Electoral College varsity really pull the old last play fumblerooski and keep Trump out of the White House? Well, technically, yes, though parties and states have done their damnedest to make sure that sort of thing doesn’t happen. Political parties choose electors explicitly for partisan loyalty and lots of states have passed laws legally requiring electors to vote for the winner of the state-wide popular vote. There’s nothing in the Constitution that requires any such thing, though, and the Supreme Court has never weighed in on the legal liabilities of faithless electors. For all we know, electors really could perform the office anticipated by Hamilton.

Indeed, in this weird and wonderful political epoch we actually have a bone fide example of someone doing exactly this. Christopher Suprun, Republican elector of Texas, has offered a reasoned case for why he’s not voting for Trump that you can read here. Suprun even seems to have read Federalist 68. Yet I wouldn’t hold out much hope of a last minute surprise based on reasoned and informed debate amongst electors. Just look at what this current bunch is up to. One elector quit because Trump wasn’t “biblically qualified,” several Clinton-pledged electors have outed themselves as Bernie Bros and are mounting a Hail Mary lobbying campaign, and another set of Clinton electors are now saying they won’t vote for Hillary because, well, I dunno. They want to create a safe space with trigger warnings on the Electoral College campus or something. Lefty logic can be hard to follow.

This is all good sport and it probably merits a posthumous “Jesus H. Christ, what were we thinking?” from Hamilton. But it almost certainly won’t amount to diddly in terms of who ends up president. There’s one Chris Suprun, a handful of well-meaning but mostly politically pie eyed lefties, and a whole bunch of electors who are going to do exactly what their party is counting on them to do. The electoral math favors Trump any way you slice it.

Well, maybe we could/should change the whole process of selecting a president to insure that, you know, the person with most votes wins. Can we do that? Again, technically yes, but practically almost certainly not. Formally changing the Electoral College requires amendment level Constitutional hacks and/or state governments acting in harmony, comity and common sense. So no relief foreseeable on the old legal front. Pretty much the only realistic option is to hang on and wait to turn the key on this bucket of bolts next cycle. Not to worry, though, it’ll get the job done just fine next time. Probably.

The Voters Had A Jefferson. It’s Giving Me A Hamilton

Thomas Jefferson was super-smart and all, but honestly, that guy had his head so far up his ass his wig powder must have doubled as dentifrice. I say this as a nostalgic fanboy, a special place kept in my heart for his declaration that, “the sapling of liberty periodically needs irrigating with blood, preferably with the miracle grow gore sourced from the plebs and not from compost-spouting, Monticello-building aristos like me.”  Well, maybe not an exact quote, but the gist is accurate enough.


Jefferson is sort of like the Sex Pistols. You know, the band that not only scared the crap out of your parents, but just because you bought their albums and cranked them up to 11 they made you, a pimply teenage oik of no particular worth or provenance, kind of scary too. You might have to make a generational adjustment on the band to make that analogy work. So feel free to insert Eminem or the Satanic Sheep Shaggers of Doom or whatever auditory toxin leaks out of ear buds on college quads these days. The labeling and melodious specifics are ultimately irrelevant. As long as it intimidates middle-aged college profs into taking the long way to the latte bar it’s golden. You get the idea. Immature proto-adults like stuff that gives grownups the vapors, because that gets the grownups’ attention.

And that’s Jefferson. He gives Founding Father cred to people power, periodic revolution, and the general idea that having the lower orders drop kick the elites in the nads every now and then is a salutary tonic for the republic. It reminds everyone who’s really in charge. A little mob-led communal bloodletting on the republican oak, or at least an angry communal widdle into the potted plant of the commonweal, clears the air. Exactly how periodically flicking all these body fluids around the arboretum of democracy achieves this is beyond me, so don’t ask. The point is, Jefferson says it is okay for the sassy masses to have a good hissy now and then. Scares the grownups.

Well, the electorate clearly just had a Jefferson and it’s certainly got the grownups’ attention. The accession of the heir with hair to the highest office has the sober and staid guardians of keeping the machine running panicked. “This isn’t going to end well,” you can hear them warning in strangled castrati sopranos, nether regions still smarting from having the hoi polloi punt their daddy tackle right over their polling forecasts. What makes it all particularly painful for that crowd is that the ultimate republican grownup assured us this sort of thing would, if not never happen, at least be kept to the absolute bare minimum.

In contrast to Jefferson, James Madison was decidedly leery about treating the people as responsible sovereigns. Sure, he thought they should hold the ultimate lock box to power, but that was only because he couldn’t figure out a better place to stash the stuff. And if the people had the power, he was dead set on making sure they’d have to work damn hard to actually use it.  As he famously put it in Federalist No. 10, “Listen, I love the people too, but criminy, they’re suckers for all sorts of shinola trafficked by ripesucks and mountebanks. And, let’s face it, half of them are wackaloons anyway. If they ask for access to the vault, for chrissake let’s only give them half the combination.  We don’t want that lot getting in there without adult supervision.” Well, now that I think of it, I might have lifted that quote from Federalist No. 51.slide2

Regardless, Madison’s point was you couldn’t trust the people any more than you could trust the elites. You had to break up power like a jigsaw puzzle. The idea was that anyone really trying to be in charge was perennially going to be at least one piece short of a full picture. Oh, the proles might get into a tizz and catapult a few angry kindergartners into the House. No matter, the Senate will make sure that after their temper tantrums they’d eat their republican veggies and take legislative naps at the appropriate times. And if the children broke into the Senate, no matter, the prez will be there, like some sort of national junior high principal armed with tardy slip vetoes to keep them in line. And if even the Electoral College somehow falls to populist plunder, no worries, we’ve got the strict grannies of the Supreme Court to keep the kiddies in line. The only way the machine really breaks down is if the bully boys take over all of these institutions and, seriously, how likely is that?

The current reply, as grownups speaking through clenched teeth and in tones still an octave high might put it: “A sight more likely than we thought.” We have the semi-extraordinary situation of a president winning on a technicality (popular vote loser, that’s, like, bigly yuge, believe me), heading a party that actually took a legislative electoral hit (Republican lost seats in Congress), and between them suddenly unleashing a motley group of populist piffle-mongers to plunder as much power in all three branches as they can grab. It’s like Johnny Rotten getting license to sit as speaker in Parliament, ceding the floor only to the MPs gobbing in the aisles and sporting knitting needles through their noses. Jefferson might approve, but dignified it ain’t, and the needle on the RPM counter above Madison’s grave must be buried deep into the red.

Somewhere Alexander Hamilton is probably watching all this with an I-told-you-so smirk. slide3Hamilton made a career out of driving both Jefferson and Madison batty with his barely concealed distaste for tugging a forelock at popular sovereignty. Hamilton famously summed up his philosophy of republican governance by saying that, “The people should just shut the hell up and let those of us who actually know what they’re doing get on with it.” Well, I might be paraphrasing a bit, but you get the idea.  Hamilton more or less only wanted the grownups to govern.

And who were the grownups? Good question. Hamilton was pretty picky about designating grownups. The party he helped birth, the Federalist Party, basically went extinct because they didn’t want to let anyone into their club who had even the faintest whiff of infantile populism about them. Problem was, even back then, the stink of the masses smelt more like roses the closer they got to the ballot box. This was a problem for deep thinking scolds like Hamilton and John Adams who were deeply committed to representative democracy and representative democratic principles, but infinitely regretted that such commitments meant having to deal with, ugh, voters. The electorate, they firmly believed, could too easily be gulled into giving full-throated support to bluffers and fantasists who, if they were actually given power, would drop all of us two fathoms full into the shite.

Hamilton never did manage to square the democracy-run-by-elites circle, so power was connected to the people by the institutional gears, switches, and pulleys designed by Madison. And that Rubik’s cube of a transmission has kept the republic more or less humming along in drive ever since. The problem is, every once in a while, the people get tempted to chuck a wrench in there when they really, really want a change in direction. Of course, blowing up your transmission is not something the adults recommend as the best means to achieve a right or left turn, but what can the adults do? Madison might have written the operating manual, but everyone knows Jefferson was okay with tossing that over your shoulder and just giving everything a really good bash now and then. And the voters just had a major Jefferson. It’s giving the grownups a serious case of the Hamiltons.