Anti-incumbent Motivations in Presidential vs. Midterm Elections

One thing that’s been a consistent theme in talk about the presidential election next year is that the main motivator for Republican voters seems to be dislike of Obama, rather than enthusiasm about any of the GOP candidates. And today, Newt Gingrich predicted big GOP pick-ups in the House and Senate again next year. Which got me wondering: we know that anti-incumbent moods can swing a midterm election, but does the same hold for congressional races in presidential election years?

My intuition is to say no. Since midterms have much lower turnout on average, a strong anti-incumbent mood among out-party voters can provide a strong motivation in otherwise uninspiring races (i.e., when few voters have strong feelings about the individual candidates). This could thus sharply skew the relative turnout between each party’s base in a midterm. In presidential years, though, the presidential contest provides a positive motivation for in-party voters to turn out; if out-party voters have only a negative motivation (voting against the incumbent, but not necessarily for their nominee), the relative turnout difference should be much smaller.

(Note that I’m assuming overall preferences are held constant; in other words, that voters aren’t changing their minds about whom to vote for, they only choose whether or not to show up/donate/mobilize others and so forth.)

But this is just a conjecture, and I’m sure somebody’s already studied it. If so, can anyone recommend some reading on this topic? I’ve got some original survey data on the strength of each candidate’s coattails in 2008, and am thinking of combining that data with a broader study of the effects of presidential candidates on congressional races. As such, any suggestions about where to start re: previous work would be put to good use.

(Since I don’t keep up a comments section on this site, you can email me at Thanks!)

On the role of gender in vote choice models

Josh Tucker poses an intriguing question over on the Money Cage blog, about why we persist in including gender in models of vote choice. I posted my thoughts as a comment on that page, but decided to repost them here as well (given that they exceeded the length of the original post) to continue the conversation:

Like other demographic variables—race, religion, income, etc.—it can serve as a useful proxy for unobserved issue preferences. Even in the US, where there’s no women’s party (or black party, christian party, or worker’s party, at least not officially), there are certainly issues on which the parties and their candidates differ, where the cleavages at least partially split along gender lines.

For example, running some data from the 2004 NAES, women:

  • supported the assault weapons ban at a rate 10% higher than men,
  • supported increasing the minimum wage at a rate 11% higher, and
  • supported making health insurance more available to children and workers at rates of 7 and 11% higher (respectively).

While in the NAES we have this data directly-measured (of course) and could thus use it on its own in vote models, in many surveys we don’t. Or, when we do, we have such fine-grained measures that aggregation is problematic. In either case, gender serves to capture some of this variation, so it’s useful for keeping vote models simple but meaningful.

Of course, there’s also the path dependency side of the equation; because everyone uses gender, it’s much easier to include it than exclude it. That’s a problem, of course, when we do have preference data, because the correlations between the data often drown out the significance of the issue preferences in regressions.

(Maybe that’s why the issue voting lit is still fairly primitive—social pressure to include demographic confounders makes the burden of proof that issues matter so much higher? Interesting topic for another time.)

Not sure what the status of the lit is on this question, but I imagine somebody’s tackled it before—seeing whether gender matters when everything else is controlled for as well. For what it’s worth, in my most recent paper (presented at APSA, on campaign effects), I found gender to be highly-significant for predicting 2004 presidential vote choice, even after accounting for partisanship, ideology, issue salience, and aggregated issue preferences. Didn’t run it with each issue separately, however, so that might have changed the results.

Now back to dissertation writing.

A “Reasonable Conversation” about Voters, Taxes, and Campaign Strategy

Most anyone who’s talked politics with me after the sun’s gone down knows about my obsession with the intersection of bad policy and good politics. One of the common themes of these rants is about taxes: the conventional wisdom for decades has been for candidates to compete over who wants to cut taxes the most, without acknowledging that tax cuts necessitate either spending cuts or budget deficits. It’s an incredibly simple equation, but few candidates ever acknowledge the tradeoffs involved.

My instinct has usually been to blame the voters. The only reason candidates would do this, I figured, was because voters are willing to believe they can really get something for nothing, that taxes only serve to line the pockets of government bureaucrats and politicians (and don’t pay for, say, Social Security or education). So you can imagine my surprise at seeing this today:

The brief summary: Pew did a national poll which found that only 30% of respondents wanted to extend all of the Bush tax cuts, while 27% wanted to repeal them for the wealthiest taxpayers, and the plurality (31%) wanted to repeal ALL of the tax cuts (including, presumably, the ones which affect the respondents themselves!).

This is pretty amazing. We could argue to no end about the reasonableness of (effectively) raising taxes during a recession, but that’s not the point. Nor are the exact numbers themselves gospel–I imagine more than a few respondents are reacting to the “Bush” part of “Bush tax cuts”, and the option of sticking it to the unspecified “wealthy” does summon the populist rage in a bipartisan fashion. What’s really important here is that, while Democratic lawmakers are clamoring to get on the tax cut bandwagon (or off of the tax increase bandwagon, if you’re thinking about attack ads), Americans appear willing to have a reasonable conversation about taxes—that is, one in which raising taxes is at least on the table.

“Willing to have a reasonable conversation”… I won’t begrudge anyone who wants to call me cynical for that one. But in political science, this is actually one of the most fundamental questions: do voters know what’s best? We know that many voters are not particularly well-informed when it comes to policy, and as such, will often use shortcuts (including partisanship, endorsements, and candidate behavior) in deciding their vote. And in their defense, this is a perfectly rational thing to do–given the influence a single voter has over the political process, becoming well-informed about policy is simply not worth the effort for anyone who doesn’t enjoy the process for its own sake. And moreover, even those whose job it is to make policy still require the services of experts when considering proposed legislation, because the scope of government policy-making is too broad for anyone to have a full understanding of all its parts. So expecting the average voter to have a robust understanding of policy is not particularly reasonable.

In reality, the outcome is always somewhat muddled–voters vary widely in the amount and quality of information they hold about policy, and act accordingly. But given the pocketbook appeal of tax cuts and the public’s general disdain for government spending (waste and inefficiency aside, most everyone’s tax dollars at least partially fund things they oppose), along with the pundrity’s dire warnings against raising taxes in a recession, it’s remarkable that a clear majority of voters are open to raising at least some taxes. And moreover, many are willing to pay more out of their own pockets. I’d have to see more data to see what this means:

  • is it the budget deficit worrying voters?
  • do they want better services (healthcare, Social Security, education, or others) and are tired of hearing that there’s no money for them?
  • are they simply reacting against the Bush-era economic policies in general, in light of their results? (The same poll shows that only 29% think Bush’s economic policies would be better right now than Obama’s.)

Regardless where it comes from, though, this trend in public opinion (assuming it’s confirmed by subsequent polls) throws the conventional wisdom on its head. There’s been talk of Obama and the Democrats in Congress attempting to steal the populist mantle back this fall by campaigning on a platform of increased taxes on the rich (a theme from Obama’s 2008 campaign, as well) and using the revenue to rein in the deficit and help out the working and middle classes. Until now I’d been doubtful–the attack ads and talking points write themselves–but perhaps it’s not as crazy to propose raising taxes as it once was. Now we just need to wait and see which candidates have the cajones to actually try it.

Cross-Postings with The Monkey Cage

The previous post (on the Research 2000 poll of Republicans) was cross-posted on The Monkey Cage after being seen by one of my professors, who writes for that blog and had been meaning to post something himself. It’s received a surprising amount of attention since then (Nate Silver agrees with me, for example), and so this week we decided to do a follow-up post. Rather than cross-posting it, I’ll just refer you to the original on their site. It addresses Research 2000′s response to criticisms of their methods, which wasn’t entirely satisfying (to put it mildly).

The next post on here will be about my own research, I promise.