Friday, September 30, 2011


Millionaires are rich

I'm glad to see that John Steele Gordon's perfectly execrable "Five Myths About Millionaires" post is receiving well deserved scorn from the likes of Steven Greene and Andrew Gelman. It would be all too easy to join in the piling on. So let's get started.

First of all, I just can't leave Gordon's claim that millionaires aren't rich alone. If you're making a million annually, I totally get that you probably don't feel rich. You probably work pretty damned hard for your money. And you can easily amass a million in annual expenses through a mortgage and tuition and clothes and transportation and a bunch of other things. And you probably work with other people who make at least as much as you do, making this sort of life seem like the norm.

You are making more than everyone in the above graph.
But you know what? It really isn't the norm. You're pulling down more than what 99% of the rest of the nation pulls down, and you're living in one of the richest nations in the history of the planet. You know what else? You could sell your nice house and buy a much less expensive one somewhere else, you could take the bus or the subway to work or buy a Hyundai, you could send your kids to public schools, you could shop at Macy's or Marshall's, etc. Yes, there might be some social costs to doing this, but the point is that you could reduce your expenses by roughly 90% and still live a very nice life with a higher standard of living than the vast majority of Americans. People making $50,000 a year really can't do that without starving.

And this comment by Gordon is really rich:
Today, a well-invested $1 million might generate $50,000 in a combination of investment returns and interest income. That isn’t chump change, but it’s roughly equal to the 2010 median household income.
Okay, if you can earn the median household income without actually working, you just might be rich.

Oh, and I can't let this one pass, either:
Income can’t be used to predict political opinion. In 2008, for example, Obama won the votes of 60 percent of those with a family income under $50,000 and 52 percent of those earning more than than $200,000. McCain carried the middle class.
I challenge anyone to look at the exit polls from 2010 and conclude that income doesn't predict political opinion. I also challenge Gordon to explain what he means by "middle class."
Update: Income distribution graph added above. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The endorsements derby

The state of the 2012 Republican presidential race, as determined by endorsements.
Data collected by Race 4 2012, as of 9/20/11.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Trends that are not actually occurring, Obama donor edition

Over at the New York Times, Nicholas Confessore has a piece up claiming that Obama's small donors, who were such a major part of his support in 2008, are not showing up for him during this election cycle. The thrust of the piece is qualitative, involving interviews with some of Obama's 2008 donors who are now disappointed with him and haven't given him any money yet. But behind these assertions is a quantitative claim: Obama is not commanding the same level of support he was four years ago. As Confessore says:
Through June 30, the close of the most recent campaign reporting period, more than 552,000 people had contributed to Mr. Obama’s re-election effort, according to campaign officials. Half of them were new donors, and nearly all of them gave contributions of less than $250.
But those figures obscured another statistic: a vast majority of Mr. Obama’s past donors, who number close to four million, have not yet given him any money at all [emphasis added].
Okay, there's a big and very obvious problem with this comparison. The half-million people who have donated to Obama's 2012 campaign so far (that is, through June of 2011) are being compared with those who donated through the entirety of the 2008 campaign season. The bulk of donors don't get involved until much closer to the primaries and general election. The appropriate comparison point would be those who donated through June of 2007. According to the FEC, there were just over 77,000 donations to Obama in the first half of 2007, roughly a third of which were under $250.

So, just to review, Obama has received more than seven times as many donations at this point in the 2012 cycle than he did by this point in the 2008 cycle. What's more, the share of his donations coming from small (under $250) contributions is now greater than it was four years ago.

Now, of course, there are plenty of reasons why these two elections cycles don't make for a great comparison. Obama is the president now, and he was only a modestly-famous freshman senator four years ago. Conversely, he was going into a hotly contested primary back then and appears to be unopposed for the nomination today. That said, there is no quantitative basis for Confessore's assertions.

That's not to say that there are no 2008 Obama supporters who are disappointed with his presidency -- I'm sure there are plenty! And I haven't collected the data that would tell us the extent to which those supporters are contributing today. But to say that the half-million who have given to Obama this year compare unfavorably to the 4 million who gave to him previously is really grossly misleading.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Do good politicians need help?

This post by Gladstone at Cracked is a bit old, but contains some important notions about presidential popularity that deserve to be addressed. Gladstone is discussing the website "WTF Has Obama Done So Far," a tongue-in-cheek project designed to demonstrate that Obama's presidency has, in fact, been marked by a great deal of accomplishments of which liberals should be proud. One would hardly expect such a website to have an enormous impact on elections or public discourse, but Gladstone actually takes it as evidence of Obama's failure as a politician:
A true presidential politician articulates a vision for America, wins over the public support and then gets the Congress to follow him because everyone wants to be on the winning team. And by that standard, Barack Obama has not met his objectives. How do you know? Because after two years in office, he needs the liberal devout to engage in an Internet campaign to explain what he's even done. [...]
[T]wo years into Reagan's term no one had to be told what he did. It didn't even matter if it were true. Americans would tell you Reagan cut inflation, made us stronger abroad and restored our national pride. Furious, the liberal intellectuals would then take to the media to explain why Reagan's seeming accomplishments were a smoke screen. Why he had taken credit where none was due. And point out all the unforgivable things he hadn't done or did in secret. Meanwhile, the right would merely smirk at those brainiac, detail-orientated liberals, while mumbling things like, "There you go, again," because they knew they'd already won.
Gladstone is funny and compelling, but also profoundly wrong about a few key items here. First of all, the obvious one: Reagan was deeply unpopular two years into his first term! In January of 1983, Reagan had approval ratings in the mid-30s, well below Obama's lowest point thus far. That doesn't make him a bad politician or a poor communicator; it's just a reminder that presidents are, to a great extent, victims of circumstance. The economy was in the middle of a full-blown recession, and that takes a toll on even charismatic politicians like Reagan.

Second, how did Reagan manage to win reelection in 1984? It's simple: the economy recovered. If "no one had to be told what [Reagan] did," that's because everyone could experience economic recovery in their own lives. More people were finding work, employed people were making more money than they were the previous year, their buying power wasn't being wiped out by high inflation, etc.

Third, even if people didn't have to be told what Reagan did, they were told anyway. No, there were no sarcastic websites in 1984, but there were plenty of conservative operatives at work getting that message out. They could largely be found in places like the White House, the Republican National Committee, the Reagan/Bush reelection campaign, and more than a few newspaper editorial desks, and they spent a great deal of time, money, and energy telling Americans that their lives were better because Reagan was in charge. In other words, they were doing exactly what liberal activists are trying to do for Obama today.

If most Democrats can't recite a laundry list of Obama's accomplishments, well that's just because very few voters can do that about any president, not because Obama's a bad politician. And if economic growth actually ramps up in the next year, Gladstone will be amazed at how good a politician Obama suddenly appears to be.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


I'm just learning about a new style of presenting research being promoted by an organization called Ignite. You present in five minutes using precisely 20 slides, which automatically advance every 15 seconds. Below is a presentation by James Fowler describing his "Connected" research. I'm honestly not sure if this is a better way to present information that the more typical lecture-discussant format (Am I intrigued by James, his research, or the gimmick?), but it certainly is novel. I might try to do one of these some time.

The Plunge

Obama poll numbers plunge ahead of job speech 
Jonathan Bernstein:
It just isn't happening. What has characterized Barack Obama's approval ratings since about September 2009 has been stability with very gradual deterioration over time. Certainly not a "plunge" at any point beyond summer 2009. That summer, if I recall correctly up until mid-August, yes. Since? Nope.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Presidential attention

Kevin Drum (via Bernstein) takes apart Bruce Bartlett's claim that Obama should have stayed single-mindedly focused on the economy even after the stimulus passed. Drum's main objection is that the argument doesn't make much sense:
What does it mean to "single-mindedly" keep his attention on the economy? I just don't understand how that translates into concrete action. I think Obama got briefed plenty to understand the trajectory of the economy (you really don't need eight hours a day to figure that out) and I have a hard time thinking that it's a good use of presidential time to insert himself into the details of the appropriation process. I also doubt that Obama really had much influence over Ben Bernanke.
Yeah, I'm with Drum here. One virtue of having a large administrative branch is that the "president," broadly speaking, can focus on many things at once. Just because the president is making a speech on health care doesn't mean that his economic advisors aren't focused full time on monitoring the economy and reporting to him regularly about its health and recommending policies. Furthermore, the president giving speeches constantly on the economy doesn't make the economy any healthier.

In a similar vein, I want to highlight an otherwise excellent NPR piece on the road to 9/11. This report details both the education of Mohammed Atta and the frustrations experienced by White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke in the months and years preceding the attack. The piece suggests that the White House possibly could have killed Bin Laden in 1999, but it was "distracted" by the Lewinsky scandal and subsequent impeachment proceedings.

I seriously doubt that the NSC and the CIA spent their briefings with the president discussing Monica Lewinsky in 1999. Clinton may well have been reluctant to order cruise missile attacks on Bin Laden based on spotty intelligence, but only because this was before 9/11 -- few Americans had any idea who Bin Laden was or what kind of threat he posed, and any inadvertent deaths resulting from bad intelligence or collateral damage would have rightly created political problems for Clinton. (The American public, and American policymakers, are substantially less risk averse today about such matters.)

In other words, the problem wasn't presidential "attention."

Update: Matt Glassman follows up on this topic by suggesting that Obama talking about health care would have been like Lincoln going around the country talking about the Homestead Act. Both were longstanding priorities of the parties, of course, but it seems distracting and possibly foolish to spend time talking about them when the nation was clearly focused on the economy/the Civil War. As Glassman says, "It does matter, when the economy is this bad, that people don’t think he’s focusing his energy on other things."

I suppose it's bad for Obama if voters think he's unconcerned about the economy, but really, when did he stop talking about the economy? You could find evidence of him discussing jobs and economic security, even in the context of health reform, throughout his presidency. If Americans think he's not concerned about the economy, this likely has more to do with the actual behavior of the economy than with any analysis of presidential time management. If the economy were humming along, people would largely be content with Obama's attention to it, regardless of how much he actually discussed it.

And while I don't consider myself an expert on Lincoln's presidency, my impression is that voters evaluated Lincoln based on the substance of the war rather than any perception of his attention span. That is, his reelection looked to be in doubt in 1863 largely because the war wasn't going well, but he won in large part because Sherman took Atlanta in the summer of 1864, tipping the war in the Union's favor. Lincoln's rhetoric, impressive though it was, probably did little to sway voters at the time it was uttered.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Time out of power and ideological extremism

John Sides has the keys to 538 and has posted a nice piece suggesting that Republicans are more likely than not to nominate an ideological extremist for president. This analysis draws heavily on Cohen et al's The Party Decides and includes one of my favorite all time scatterplots:
The basic lesson above is that the longer a party has not controlled the White House, the more moderate a candidate it tends to nominate. The logic here is pretty intuitive. Just one term out of power, a party might see the most recent election as a fluke, the product of a bad candidate or bad times. "The White House is rightfully ours," they might think, "so there's no need to soften our stances. Just put up a less flawed candidate in a less crazy year and we're back in." Of course, that doesn't always work, so with each subsequent term out of power, they get hungrier for the White House and are willing to compromise more and more of their agenda to get it. At the extreme (five terms out of power), they're willing to nominate someone like Eisenhower, whose policy views and even party registration were a complete enigma until the summer of the convention. "Who cares what he stands for? He might win!"

There's evidence of this same trend in other countries and at the state level. Just think of the California Republican Party's backing of Schwarzenegger in the 2003 recall despite his being well to the left of most of the party regulars.

Anyway, if you're a betting person, the above history tends to point to a Perry candidacy rather than a Romney one.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Seeking legal remedies where no law exists

Reporting from Tripoli, Marc Herman describes a horrific attack on a family by a group of Khaddafi loyalists. But what remedies are available? As Marc concludes,
If what appears to have happened to the Mrayed family really did, it would surely be a war crime, and almost certainly only one of many such cases that will emerge from Libya's war. But journalists, to our great frustration, lack subpoena power or the ability to compel on-the-record testimony. The Mrayed family must not only wait for a formal investigation by a viable legal authority, they must wait for Libya to build one.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Phantom Negotiation

Jim Daly, the new president of Focus on the Family, has made a point of meeting with pro-choice groups in an effort to find common ground on the goal of reducing abortions. This sounds commendable and interesting, but according to this article*, it's been hard to confirm that this has been happening. Focus on the Family won't disclose what groups they're meeting with, and the author has been calling a bunch of pro-choice groups, all of whom deny meeting with Focus on the Family.

*Yeah, the article quotes me. Sue me for self-promotion.

The economy and the vote: It ain't just America

Ezra cites a new Larry Bartels paper on economic growth and support for the incumbent majority party in 31 recent parliamentary elections in developed democracies. Key graph:
Seen in this light, the Democrats here in the U.S. only underperformed very slightly. 

How to teach political science

Ezra Klein was kind enough to call me and chat about his recent blog post on the 2012 election. During our conversation, we discussed his visit to APSA this year and his experiences with political science education (he attended two University of California campuses as an undergrad). As he described it, undergraduate political science education comes across like a high school civics class on steroids, and probably only over-the-counter-strength steroids at that. He moved to DC after college because he wanted to really understand "politics," but after a few years there, he discovered that political scientists were the only ones who were actually studying politics systematically, and that we actually had some pretty good answers.

This actually mirrors my own experiences. I was certainly happy enough with my undergraduate education, but I was very rarely inspired by my poli sci classes. I went to graduate school in poli sci largely in spite of, rather than because of, my undergraduate experiences.

I'd like to think things have changed since I was an undergrad in the late Pleistocene, but I'm not sure they have that much. I think we can do a lot more to engage our students. Not just by using more active learning approaches (although that can surely help), but also by conveying the idea of discovery. Learning a series of facts is not nearly as compelling as learning how we learned those facts. Any student can write down "The President's party tends to lose House seats in midterm elections" and probably regurgitate that on a test. Show them a scatterplot, though, and the visual approach grabs them on a different level. Have them make the scatterplot from raw data, and you've got a budding scientist on your hands.

I'm starting my intro class off this year by having the students read Hans Noel's fabulous essay "Ten Things Political Scientists Know That You Don't," which conveys, more than just about any other undergraduate-appropriate article I've read, the idea that some things are knowable. We haven't figured out everything by a long shot, but we've figured out some things, and the areas we're still working on are really pretty fascinating mysteries. I'd love it if one of my undergraduates some day figures one of them out.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Meanwhile, in Dan Maes' universe...

Remember Dan Maes? The Republican gubernatorial nominee who managed to pull just 11% of the vote last year? Well, he's got a new book out in which he sets the record, um, straight? Among his claims:
  • He would have beaten Democrat John Hickenlooper if Tom Tancredo hadn't jumped in for a third-party run.
  • Tom Tancredo only ran because he thought Maes was Mexican.
  • Maes speaks with "the firm voice, tone, and rhythm of Ronald Reagan."
Look, one can certainly question Tancredo's actions in that race, but it's hard to question his analysis: Maes really was going to lose, badly. Tancredo only jumped in because it looked like Hickenlooper was going to get such a free ride. Indeed, if Maes had dropped out, as many prominent Republicans were urging him to do, Tancredo, despite his years of extremist rhetoric, would have had a fighting chance against Hickenlooper given the 2010 political environment.

Oh, I should particularly praise Denver Post writer Tim Hoover for these two sentences of the book review:
The 222-page book was self-published and appears to have been self-edited. It is in need of judicious proofreading in many places.
I also enjoyed this paragraph about the people who messed with Maes:
He faults a number of people and institutions for his loss, including former Republican Party chairman Dick Wadhams, a variety of Republican funders, some Tea Party activists, a liberal press and even former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who he says did not throw him any support despite his e-mail conversations with her father-in-law.
It's a damned shame when an e-mail conversation with Sarah Palin's father-in-law doesn't translate into actual political support. 

A 9/11 reflection - my $.02

Of the surprisingly few cinematic responses to 9/11, the best for my money is "Munich" (2005), a thoughtful and nuanced examination of the need for a nation to respond to terror and how that response dehumanizes that nation and compromises its ideals. The character Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) sums it up nicely:
I don't know if we were ever that decent. Suffering thousands of years of hatred doesn't make you decent. But we're supposed to be righteous. That's a beautiful thing. That's Jewish. That's what I knew, that's what I was taught and I'm losing it. I lose that and that's everything. That's my soul.
I don't think we're a better or stronger nation as a result of that horrible day ten years ago. I am not nostalgic for the unity we felt during the following months, as it was based almost entirely on shared terror and was easily exploited into support for some very damaging government policies. I don't think we lost our innocence that day, any more than we lost our innocence when Oklahoma City was bombed or when Nixon was (almost) impeached or Kennedy was killed or Pearl Harbor was hit. We're a major world power with a good deal of personal freedom -- we know that terrible things will sometimes happen despite our best efforts.

I like to think we've grown somewhat as a country in the past ten years, and that we have a more mature understanding of America's place in the world and the vulnerabilities we face just by being alive. But I also find that it just takes a few TV images of burning towers to transport me back to that morning ten years ago when I awoke in horror and began to wonder about the world my unborn son would inherit.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

What's at stake in 2012

Saying that an upcoming presidential election is the most important election in a generation is a classic hack trope. That said, the upcoming presidential election is the most important election in a generation.

Why do I say this? Because we are in the middle of (and hopefully on the tail end of) a truly catastrophic recession. The economy will recover, although that may not happen for several years. It seems fair to say that the economy will not be roaring again any time soon, meaning that Obama will at best win by a squeaker. If it dips back into recession, he's toast. Most likely, it will end up just being a really competitive and interesting race on par with 2004.

The party occupying the White House when the economy does finally start booming will get the credit among the public for saving the country. It doesn't matter so much who was in power when the recession hit or whose policies helped or hurt the recovery. To a large extent, it's simply a matter of being in the Oval Office at the right time.

I've quoted Larry Bartels on this point before, but here it is again:
Considering America’s Depression-era politics in comparative perspective reinforces the impression that there may have been a good deal less real policy content to “throwing the bums out” than meets the eye. In the U.S.,voters replaced Republicans with Democrats and the economy improved. In Britain and Australia, voters replaced Labor governments with conservatives and the economy improved. In Sweden, voters replaced Conservatives with Liberals, then with Social Democrats, and the economy improved. In the Canadian agricultural province of Saskatchewan, voters replaced Conservatives with Socialists and the economy improved. In the adjacent agricultural province of Alberta, voters replaced a socialist party with a right-leaning funny-money party created from scratch by a charismatic radio preacher, and the economy improved. In Weimar Germany, where economic distress was deeper and longer-lasting, voters rejected all of the mainstream parties, the Nazis seized power, and the economy improved. In every case, the party that happened to be in power when the Depression eased dominated politics for a decade or more thereafter. It seems farfetched to imagine that all these contradictory shifts represented well-considered ideological conversions. A more parsimonious interpretation is that voters simply—and simple-mindedly—rewarded whoever happened to be in power when things got better.
All this is to say that a handful of states in 2012 will likely determine Democratic or Republican dominance for the next decade or longer. And given the huge ideological gulf between the parties today, that means vastly different policies depending on the outcome.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Tasty morsels

Thursday, September 1, 2011

APSA 2011

Relatively light blogging for now, as I'm at APSA in Seattle. I'll be posting occasionally to Twitter, and I hope to attend the Monkey Cage reception on Friday night for a chance to meet some real live bloggers and pay for my own drinks.

Meanwhile, yes, I'm tooting my own horn a bit, but this looks to be an interesting panel on party networks. Hope people can make it on Saturday at 8AM!