The Real Lesson From Iowa

Robert Hubbell’s Substack analysis of the Iowa Republican caucus focused on a point I keep hammering: turnout–getting out the vote–is far and away the most important imperative of this year’s election cycle.

There is a mountain of social science data confirming that high-turnout elections benefit Democrats. There’s a reason the GOP does everything in its power to suppress the vote. By far the most effective suppression comes from gerrymandering–voters in districts drawn to be “safe” for a party they don’t support feel–not illogically–that their votes won’t count, so why bother? It will be critically important to remind those voters that statewide races and the popular vote for President are not subject to gerrymandering. With the exception of the potential operation of the Electoral College, those votes will absolutely count.

Hubbell makes the argument for the importance of turnout in the context of Iowa’s (weird) caucus system. He begins by looking at the composition of those who did turn out:

Among those who attended the caucuses, most voters hold extremist views. Those views are reprehensible and deserve to be condemned. But those who showed up on Monday were mostly Trump loyalists who represent the slimmest majority possible of voters in Iowa.

Although Hubbell doesn’t mention it, this feature of caucus turnout is equally true of turnout in state primaries. The typically low primary turnout is characterized by votes from the most passionate–and extreme–members of both parties. And those voters do not reflect majority sentiments.

So, as we collectively talk about the results in Iowa, it is important to realize that 49% of those who voted on a bitterly cold night (-3 Fahrenheit) did not support Trump. Most of the voters who opposed Trump do not condone his views about immigrants poisoning the blood of America, or his opponents being “vermin,” or his belief that the 2020 election was “rigged.”…

As we move forward in the 2024 campaign, let’s remember that there are Democrats, Independents, and Republicans in Iowa who will not support Trump. Our job is to convince them to show up for Biden. Lumping them in with MAGA extremists is not an effective way of achieving that goal.

And the same applies to every so-called “red state.” In every state, there are local and statewide offices that can be flipped—something that will help limit and blunt the effect of Republican control of statehouses and governors’ mansions.

So, let’s set aside the notion that red states are a lost cause and do not deserve our attention or support. Not only do they deserve our help, but they are the front line of resistance—just like the Democrats, Independents, and Republicans who chose not to vote for Trump on Monday.

Turnout in Iowa was low— only 110,298 voters participated in the GOP caucuses, amounting to about 19% of the 594,533 “active” registered Republicans . Of those, 51%  voted for Trump (or 52,260). So Trump’s “big” victory in Iowa was “achieved with support from 7% of Iowa Republicans—or 3% of Iowa’s 1,518,280 active voters.”

Trump’s victory on Monday night was decided by the 97% of Iowa voters who “did not vote” in the caucuses. So, before we over-interpret the result on Monday, we must recognize that the potential for a devastating defeat for Trump is within our reach—assuming that we can motivate sufficient turnout. (emphasis mine)

So, as we face the onslaught of polls in the coming primary season predicting doom for Democrats, we must always remember that turnout can beat any poll.

As Hubbell reminds his readers, the Iowa caucus results affirm a fundamental truth: It all comes down to turnout.

Even in dramatically-gerrymandered Indiana, if a significant percentage of the disaffected voters in “safe” districts voted, a number of the districts would no longer be safe. Republican victories in Indiana are increasingly dependent upon low turnout–especially in the more rural areas of the state that have been steadily losing population.

Hubbell is absolutely right when he insists that Democrats cannot afford to write off Red states this year, of all years.

We need to make the strongest possible case– to apathetic and/or disheartened Democrats as well as to Independents and any remaining sane Republicans– that their votes are needed to save the Constitution, protect democracy, and remove the GOP crazies’ stranglehold that currently prevents Congress from functioning.

For those of us who have felt helpless against the drumbeat of depressing news, there is one thing we each can do: we can encourage everyone we know to register and we can follow up to ensure that they actually vote.


A History Of Prognosticating

Given the overwhelmingly negative press about Biden’s approval ratings, I was impressed (and persuaded) by a recent essay in the American Prospect titled You Are Entering The Infernal Triangle: Authoritarian Republicans, ineffectual Democrats, and a clueless media,”

The essay began by considering how often pollsters blow their most confident—and consequential—calls.

Ronald Reagan’s landslide was preceded by a near-universal consensus that the election was tied. The pollster who called it correctly, Lou Harris, was the only one who thought to factor into his models a variable that hadn’t been accounted for in previous elections, because it did not yet really exist: the Christian right.

Polling is systematically biased in just that way: toward variables that were evident in the last election, which may or may not be salient for this election.

Former punditry was worse.

I have probably read thousands of newspaper opinion column prognostications going back to the 1950s. Their track record is too embarrassing for me to take the exercise seriously, let alone practice it myself. Like bad polls, pundits’ predictions are most useful when they are wrong. They provide an invaluable record of the unspoken collective assumptions of America’s journalistic elite, one of the most hierarchical, conformist groups of people you’ll ever run across. Unfortunately, they help shape our world nearly as much, and sometimes more, than the politicians they comment about. So their collective mistakes land hard.

Examples? In 1964: When Lyndon Johnson, defeated Barry Goldwater, one of the most distinguished liberal newspaper editors in the South pronounced that all future American elections would be decided “on issues other than civil rights” and affirmed what was then conventional wisdom– in the future, whichever party took the Black vote would be “no more predictable than who would win “freckle-faced redheads and one-armed shortstops.”

In 1976, when Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford, pundits overwhelmingly proclaimed that the GOP was “in a weaker position than any major party of the U.S. since the Civil War.” That was right before 1978, when “New Right Republicans and conservative Democrats upset many of the longest-serving and beloved liberals in Washington.”

There were several other examples, culminating with the following;

And in 2012, when Michael Lind wrote of Barack Obama’s re-election victory, “No doubt some Reaganite conservatives will continue to fight the old battles, like the Japanese soldiers who hid on Pacific islands for decades, fighting a war that had long before been lost … Any competitive Republican Party in the future will be to the left of today’s Republican Party, on both social and economic issues.”

The author uses these examples to point out that the “conceptual tools, metaphors, habits, and technologies that we understand as political journalism” are thoroughly inadequate to understanding what politics now is.

According to polls (which, yes, have their uses, in moderation), something around half of likely voters would like to see as our next president a man who thinks of the law as an extension of his superior will, who talks about race like a Nazi, wants to put journalistic organizations whose coverage he doesn’t like in the dock for “treason,” and who promises that anyone violating standards of good order as he defines them—shoplifters, for instance—will be summarily shot dead by officers of the state who serve only at his pleasure. A fascist, in other words. We find ourselves on the brink of an astonishing watershed, in this 2024 presidential year: a live possibility that government of the people, by the people, and for the people could conceivably perish from these United States, and ordinary people—you, me—may have to make the kind of moral choices about resistance that mid-20th-century existentialist philosophers once wrote about. That’s the case if Trump wins. But it’s just as likely, or even more likely, if he loses, then claims he wins. That’s one prediction I feel comfortable with.

Journalistically, this crisis could not strike more deeply. The tools we have for making sense of how politicians seek to accumulate power focus on the whys and wherefores of attracting votes. But the Republican Party and its associated institutions of movement conservatism, at least since George and Jeb Bush stole the 2000 election in Florida, has been ratcheting remorselessly toward an understanding of the accumulation of political power, to which they believe themselves ineluctably entitled as the only truly legitimate Americans, as a question of will—up to and including the projection of will by the force of arms.

Ain’t no poll predicting who soccer moms will vote for in November that can make much headway in understanding that.

The article proceeded to consider the way mainstream American political journalism has built in a structural bias toward Republicans. I will share some of those insights tomorrow, but you really should click through and read the entire essay.


Abortion Politics

Analyses of the midterm elections, and the failure of the anticipated “Red wave” have uniformly attributed that result to the potency of the abortion issue.  FiveThirtyEight has reported that in the 38 special elections that followed the midterms, Democrats have over-performed the relevant partisan lean — the relative liberal or conservative history of the area– by an average of 10%. Experts attribute that over-performance to the abortion issue.

A year after Dobbs, a Gallup poll found the issue had lost none of its potency.

A year after U.S. voters attached record-high importance to abortion as an election issue, a new Gallup poll finds it retaining its potency, particularly for the pro-choice side of the debate.

Currently, 28% of registered voters say they will only vote for candidates for major offices who share their position on abortion, one percentage point higher than the previous high of 27% recorded in 2022 and 2019.

A record-low 14% now say abortion is not a major issue in their vote. While similar to last year’s 16%, it is down nine points from the prior low of 23% recorded in 2007.

Results from referenda where voters are faced with a single issue are one thing, but what about the strength of the issue when it is only one element of a candidate’s agenda? Gallup polled that question, too.

Currently, 33% of registered voters who identify as pro-choice versus 23% of pro-life voters say they will only vote for a candidate who agrees with them on abortion. This advantage for the pro-choice side is new since last year.

What accounts for the continued salience of this issue?

For one thing, it’s easy to understand. Republicans and Democrats can argue about the causes and/or levels of inflation, they can debate the effects of “woke-ness,” or the size of the national debt. But debate over who should decide whether a given woman gives birth is straightforward–and it potentially affects every family.

The position of a candidate for public office on the issue is also a recognizable marker for that candidate’s positions on the use or misuse of government power generally.

Back when I was a Republican, the GOP argued for the importance of limiting government interventions to those areas of our common lives that clearly required government action. That position was consistent with the libertarian premise that underlies America’s Bill of Rights: the principle that individuals should be free to make their own life choices, unless and until those choices harm others, and so long as they are willing to accord an equal right to others.

Today’s GOP has utterly abandoned that commitment to individual liberty–it has morphed into a party intent upon using the power of government to impose its views on everyone else. (Actually, if the current ideological battle weren’t so serious, the hypocrisies and inconsistencies would be funny. As a current Facebook meme puts it, today’s Republicans believe a ten-year-old is old enough to give birth, but not old enough to choose a library book.)

As Morton and I wrote in our recent book, the assault on reproductive choice–the belief that government has the right to force women to give birth–is only one element of an overall illiberal, statist and dangerous philosophy. The fundamental right of persons to determine for themselves the course of their own lives and the well-being of their families is the central issue of our time–and it isn’t an issue that affects only women. (According to several reports, even the audience at Republicans’ recent debate failed to show enthusiasm when candidates all supported a federal ban on abortions.)

In the wake of Dobbs, Erwin Chemerinsky wrote:

The central question in the abortion debate is who should decide. Roe v. Wade held that it is for each woman to decide for herself whether to terminate a pregnancy. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization says it is for the legislatures and the political process. The only thing that is certain is that the implications—for women’s lives and for our society—will be enormous and for a long time to come.

We’ve noticed.

Voters may be unaware of the more technical–and worrisome–medical and legal implications of the Dobbs decision, but they clearly understand the difference between candidates who are willing to use the authority of government to impose their own beliefs on those who differ and those who are not. That clarity is the reason the abortion issue has been so powerful a motivator.

Analyses conducted after the midterms and subsequent special elections determined that abortion had been a major driver of turnout in what had historically been low-turnout contests. Whether those increases in turnout will hold in a Presidential election is the question.

The answer will constrain or enhance government power over individuals in areas well beyond reproductive choice.


Repeating Myself

I recently came across an opinion essay I wrote in 2008 for an academic journal. As we head into yet another election season, I’m repeating it–unfortunately, little has changed.


As another election season comes to a (merciful) close, one lesson is abundantly clear: there is a huge disconnect between the skill sets public offices require and the sales pitches candidates are making.

Campaigns are job applications and the candidates are applicants. We voters are (at least theoretically) the folks doing the hiring. In order to make informed “hires,” we need to know two things: what competencies the job requires, and which of the “applicants” come equipped with the requisite skills as well as our preferred policy positions.

Is this election for mayor, governor or president? We need someone who understands the relevant administrative structure, who is able to assess and recruit knowledgeable technocrats and aides, who has a good grasp of economic and budgetary issues, tax policies, intergovernmental relations and the mechanics of service delivery. It is highly desirable that the applicant be aware of the competing needs and desires of the diverse constituencies to be served and have an ability to communicate with representatives of those constituencies.

Is this an election to fill a legislative seat? In addition to the skills listed above, a policy background is highly desirable—as is a demonstrated ability to work in a bipartisan way with other legislators and members of the executive branch.

For democratic processes to work, voters need information that allows them to match the qualifications of the candidates to the requirements of the position. Unfortunately, it is impossible to sit through the avalanche of misleading 30-second spots, scurrilous Internet postings or negative direct-mail pieces and not conclude that the task is impossible, and that the American electoral process is badly broken.

There is no dearth of theories about what ails us: gerrymandering, too much money, too much rigid ideology, too much partisanship, too many lobbyists, too many pundits and too few real reporters….the list is extensive, and all of the items on that list undoubtedly contribute to the sorry state of today’s politics. But these things would matter less if the electorate were better informed.

Let me just offer a couple of all-too-typical examples. In my state, a Senate candidate is currently airing a spot blasting his opponent—a sitting Congressman—for voting to raise the debt ceiling. This political attack depends for its effectiveness on public ignorance of the difference between a vote to raise the debt ceiling and a vote to add to the national debt. Large bipartisan majorities have raised the ceiling without controversy for many years, because members of both parties have understood that difference.

The national debt is a genuine issue. Reasonable people can disagree about the mix of “revenue enhancements” (aka taxes) and spending cuts needed. But only someone with absolutely no understanding of the economic system advocates a reckless act that would make it impossible for the U.S. Government to pay bills it has already incurred—and only an uninformed voter would respond positively to such advocacy.

A more typical political attack is some variation on the theme that “Congressman X has been in Washington for Y years, but we still have problem Z.” No one who understands checks and balances and the limits on what any individual member of Congress can accomplish is going to take such a charge seriously. The fact that a political candidate believes this to be an effective argument tells us a lot about that candidate’s respect for the intelligence of the average voter.

There is another possibility, of course. It may be that these appeals are not simply cynical ploys based upon perceived public ignorance. It may be that the people who are running for office actually believe their own arguments. In several races around the country, candidates are promising to enact policies that are clearly unconstitutional. Others are promising to achieve economic results that are mathematically impossible. Knowledgeable folks tend to discount these statements as political games candidates play, but in at least some cases, it’s clear the candidates really don’t know any better.

It would be nice if we could simply shrug off the more embarrassing examples of electoral dysfunction, but the quality of our political candidates ultimately affects both the voting public and the public administrators trying to serve that public.

Just as having a crazy boss makes a private-sector worker’s job more difficult, electing people to set policy in areas they don’t understand is a major barrier to public problem solving. If members of the House Science and Technology Committee reject evidence of global climate change (last year, one member reassured a panel of climate scientists that we don’t need to worry because after the flood, “God promised in Genesis that He would not destroy Earth again, and I believe God”), where will we find the human and fiscal resources necessary to combat global warming and reduce carbon emissions?

There are a number of things individuals might do to help clean up the current mess that is our election system. We can visit fact-checking sites to vet campaign pronouncements. We can work to reform the redistricting process. We can sign on to one of the efforts to reverse Citizens United – the case that opened the money spigot that became the gusher of SuperPac spending. Those of us who are educators must work to raise the levels of civic literacy in this country.

And we all need to withhold our votes from those who run campaigns geared to public passions and popular ignorance.


So Much For Sportsmanship

Speaking of election denialism…

Most of us remember youthful ball games with the whiny little kid who responded to losing  by taking his ball and bat and going home. Most of us also remember parental lectures on what “good sportsmanship” means, and why fair play and graciousness in losing is so important.

It appears that the GOP has jettisoned those values, along with the precepts formerly associated with genuine Christianity. (Evidently, none of those ethical principles are consistent with the party’s growing devotion to QAnon…)

The Washington Post recently questioned a number of current GOP candidates for public office, and reported that at least a dozen Republican candidates running for governor and Senate simply refused  to say whether they would accept negative results of their contests.

In a survey by The Washington Post of 19 of the most closely watched statewide races in the country, the contrast between Republican and Democratic candidates was stark. While seven GOP nominees committed to accepting the outcomes in their contests, 12 either refused to commit or declined to respond. On the Democratic side, 18 said they would accept the outcome and one did not respond to The Post’s survey.

Trump, of course, has continued to claim– without a scintilla of evidence– that his loss to Joe Biden in 2020 was rigged. Since he attacks fellow Republicans unwilling to agree, the article notes that he has made election denialism the price of admission in many GOP primaries, with the result that more than half of all Republican nominees for federal and statewide offices that administer elections “have embraced unproven claims that fraud tainted Biden’s win, according to a Washington Post tally.”

As I’ve repeatedly noted, one of them is running for Secretary of State here in Indiana.

In competitive races for governor or Senate in Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas, GOP candidates declined to say that they would accept this year’s result. All but two — incumbent senators Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Marco Rubio of Florida — have publicly embraced Trump’s false claims about 2020, according to a Post analysis.

Seven Republicans did pledge to accept the results. One of them was  Colorado Senate contender Joe O’Dea.

O’Dea, who is behind in the polls as he attempts to unseat incumbent Colorado Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D), did not reference Trump by name, but used his response to offer notably sharp criticism of candidates who refuse to concede when they lose.
“There’s no polite way to put it. We have become a nation of poor sports and cry babies,” said O’Dea. “We’ll keep a close eye on things, but after the process is done and the votes are counted, I’ll absolutely accept the outcome. If the Senator is up for it, we can certify it over a beer. It’s time for America’s leaders to start acting like adults again. Loser buys.”

This growing unwillingness to accept the results of an election is no small thing.

Elections have been defined as a substitute for armed conflict–rather than taking to the streets, democratic polities choose “champions” (aka candidates) who take their arguments to the people. The people vote, and the loser accepts their verdict (usually biding his or her time until the next election cycle). Violence averted, governance continued.

That, of course, is the ideal. And there are plenty of reasons to criticize America’s current conduct of elections– gerrymandering, the greater weight given to rural votes, social media campaigns sowing disinformation, the outsized influence of money, and the widespread lack of civic literacy among the voting population. I do not mean to minimize the significance of those factors, or their ability to affect the results of electoral contests.

We definitely need to address the multiple defects in our electoral processes. We need to streamline registration and minimize state-level game-playing, and we clearly need to make it easier rather than harder to vote.

But none of those defects means that the result of a given election contest is “rigged.” 

“If I win, it was a fair election. If I lose, it was rigged.”  Heads I win, tails you lose is, as O’Dea put it, the position of a cry baby–the modern iteration of the poor sport who responded to a loss by taking his ball and bat and going home. It is also a position absolutely incompatible with a functioning democracy.

Those of us who support a candidate who loses can point to lots of reasons why voters supported the “wrong” candidate. But in the continued absence of provable fraud, our civic obligation is to suck it up and concede. 

The Republican candidates who are telling us they will refuse to abide by  results they don’t like are telling us who and what they are.  Believe them.