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.


There Are Polls…And The Polls

I get just as worried as anyone else over those polls that our media outlets obsess over–the ones that find more Americans voting for Mr. Mental Case than for President Biden. But I know I shouldn’t.

Over the past several years, in election cycle after election cycle, even opinion polls produced by highly credible sources have proved to be wrong, and not by just a little. There are a lot of reasons for the misses–ever since cell phones replaced land lines, efforts by those conducting the surveys to compensate, to adjust in order to ensure they are surveying representative groups of voters, have proven inadequate.

A recent post to Daily Kos reminded me why we should take all polls–with the exception of actual voting at the election polls–with a heaping measure of salt.

The post began by reminding readers of Congress’ abysmal polling–and the fact that, despite overwhelming disapproval, incumbent representatives get re-elected more than 90% of the time. (We used to refer to this as the “I hate Congress but love my own Congressperson” problem.)

It is difficult to square these high reelection rates with Americans’ overall low opinion of Congress. Gallup tracking polls of Americans’ opinions of Congress over the past twenty years reveal that rarely do more than 25 percent of Americans approve of Congress and frequently their approval is down in the 14-20 percent range. In one recent Gallup survey, as few as 9 percent of people approved of the way Congress was handling its job.

The post– written by someone who is himself a political pollster–went on to explain:

There is a lot of bad data out there, mostly because of the fact that it is almost impossible to collect it.  So when I tell you there is a lot of bad polling, almost all of it, it does not mean I think the polling is intentionally bad, or done with a purpose of propaganda.  It just means that Republicans are much, much easier to reach than Democrats.  I have spoken about this before.  It is one of the biggest reasons I saw the 2022 election going differently than most.

What the pollsters did not figure out, however, is that this is not a problem that can be fixed with weighting.  As I have said, a young person that talks on the phone, is more conservative than one that likes to text.  Generally, this cuts across all demographics.  Republicans are more likely to participate…

As Michael Podhorzer has demonstrated, pollsters influence outcomes by letting their own biases and intuitions tilt poll results by deciding who to include in the sample. A month before its late-October 2022 poll showing a four-point deficit, the Times/Siena showed Dems up by two points. In the October story, the Times/Siena showed Biden losing ground among independents and women. But as Podhorzer writes, “What the paper didn’t disclose was this: Independent voters hadn’t changed their minds; the New York Times changed its mind about which Independents would vote.”

Perhaps the most significant insight in this particular post is this: support doesn’t change. Turnout does. Political preferences tend to be stable; in today’s highly polarized political environment, self-identified Republicans and Democrats are highly unlikely to go to the polls and cast a vote for a candidate of the other party.

The motivation to go to the polls–the motivation to cast that vote–is another matter.

The number one thing to remember about polling, is that after about 2000, for the most part, bases solidified and voters do not often change their minds.  Partisanship has hardened.  All elections are about turnout.  While independents may be in a sour mood, they are also displaying nihilistic tendencies, and my research suggests the most likely scenario is one that makes 2024 a base election.

Permit me to repeat the most important insight in that paragraph: All elections are about turnout. 

Democrats did extremely well this November, because they turned out. Thanks to the Dobbs decision and the unremitting MAGA attacks on democracy and the rule of law, Democrats have been motivated to turn out in much higher numbers than usual. That motivation is likely to persist into 2024.

If there is a moral to this story, it’s this: don’t try to “get through” to your bigoted uncle at Thanksgiving. Don’t try to explain to your co-worker why his vote for the GOP is really a vote for cutting Social Security. Instead, make sure your college-age children, your live-and-let-live bowling buddy, and your pro-choice aunt are registered and that they have rides to the polls.

You know–those polls that (contrary to the Big Lie) are actually accurate and meaningful.


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.


A Changing Electorate

You can get whiplash from reading the political news.

One story making the media rounds suggests that–despite the non-emergence of a “Red wave” in the 2022 midterms, Republican turnout was better than Democratic turnout. Hard to read that without despairing of the prospects for 2024, despite the fact that midterm turnout by the party that doesn’t hold the White House is almost always reliably bigger.

But then, I came across this article in the Washington Post. Talk about an upper!

The essay was co-authored by Celinda Lake, a Democratic Party strategist and one of two lead pollsters for Biden’s 2020 campaign, and Mac Heller, a documentary filmmaker. Here’s the part that lifted my spirits:

Every year, about 4 million Americans turn 18 and gain the right to vote. In the eight years between the 2016 and 2024 elections, that’s 32 million new eligible voters.

Also every year, 2½ million older Americans die. So in the same eight years, that’s as many as 20 million fewer older voters.

Which means that between Trump’s election in 2016 and the 2024 election, the number of Gen Z (born in the late 1990s and early 2010s) voters will have advanced by a net 52 million against older people. That’s about 20 percent of the total 2020 eligible electorate of 258 million Americans.

And unlike previous generations, Gen Z votes. Comparing the four federal elections since 2015 (when the first members of Gen Z turned 18) with the preceding nine (1998 to 2014), average turnout by young voters (defined here as voters under 30) in the Trump and post-Trump years has been 25 percent higher than that of older generations at the same age before Trump — 8 percent higher in presidential years and a whopping 46 percent higher in midterms.

Not as impressive–but not insignificant–has been the midterm increase of 7% in voter registration among under-30 voters since Gen Z joined the electorate. The authors report that, In midterm elections, “under-30s have seen a 20 percent increase in their share of the electorate, on average, since Trump and Gen Z entered the game.

Interestingly, reactions to Trump don’t turn out to be a major factor for these voters. Polls suggest that Gen Z voters are motivated by “strong passion” on one or more issues — “a much more policy-driven approach than the more partisan voting behavior of their elders.”

That policy-first approach, combined with the issues they care most about, have led young people in recent years to vote more frequently for Democrats and progressive policies than prior generations did when of similar age — as recent elections in Kansas, Michigan and Wisconsin have shown.

Researchers have already demonstrated the fallacy of the long-held belief among political observers that American voters become more conservative as they age. Recent studies show that once political identities are formed, they tend to remain constant. And as the authors of this essay note, “about 48 percent of Gen Z voters identify as a person of color, while the boomers they’re replacing in the electorate are 72 percent White.”

Gen Z voters are on track to be the most educated group in our history, and the majority of college graduates are now female. Because voting participation correlates positively with education, expect women to speak with a bigger voice in our coming elections. Gen Z voters are much more likely to cite gender fluidity as a value, and they list racism among their greatest concerns. Further, they are the least religious generation in our history. No wonder there’s discussion in some parts of the GOP about raising the voting age to 25, and among some Democrats about lowering it to 16!

The fact that younger voters are more likely to be driven by issues rather than partisanship should be very good news for Democrats, since polling demonstrates that Democratic positions align with the policy preferences of a substantial majority of Americans.

But the news isn’t all good. There’s a danger there, too.

The importance of issues, rather than party ID, holds a warning:Both parties should worry about young voters embracing third-party candidates. Past elections show that Gen Z voters shop for candidates longer and respond favorably to new faces and issue-oriented candidates. They like combining their activism with their voting and don’t feel bound by party loyalty. And they can’t remember Ross Perot, Ralph Nader — or even Jill Stein.

GOP support for “No Labels” and RNK, Jr. are evidence that Republicans understand that danger. They know they can’t win a head-to-head campaign between Donald Trump and Biden (or for that matter, between Trump and pretty much any sentient Democrat). Their best hopes for victory lie with the Electoral College and third-party candidates who can peel off votes in selected states that would otherwise go to the Democrats.

Like I said–whiplash.


Pins And Needles

To subscribers who received these introductory paragraphs  yesterday–accidental “pre-post.”  Sorry.

I will be honest–the last several weeks have been painful. Initially, I devoured political news and punditry, but for the past couple of weeks, I’ve even avoided most of the news–including financial updates and coverage of the sort of policy debates that usually engages nerds like yours truly.

Because–let’s be candid–what difference will any of it make if we lose our chance to build the America I’ve inhabited mentally for these many years.

I don’t want to hear from the nay-sayers and holier-than-thou-ers who will predictably lecture me on the multiple ways in which America the Country has routinely failed to live up to the America of my goals and aspirations. I know that history–but even at its worst, it hardly justifies handing the country over to the drooling haters, know-nothings, QAnon believers and (perhaps worst of all) the otherwise “nice” people who never bothered to learn about or follow government and politics and so mindlessly continue to cast their ballots (if they bother to do so) for a GOP that no longer exists.

All this is by way of explaining the dread leading up to an “after the votes are counted” post. Of course, votes are still being counted…

So–as of today, what do we know?

Well, for one thing, we know that the predicted “Red Wave” failed to materialize. (Unfortunately, so did the Blue Tsunami I was hoping for, but that was admittedly a pie in the sky hope.) Virtually all the headlines I saw yesterday focused on the failure of the GOP to make the gains they’d confidently predicted.

Red Wave? Nah–pink puddle.

Paul Ogden really nailed it in his comment yesterday. After detailing the headwinds Democrats faced, he wrote “I can’t begin to tell you how historic yesterday’s election was.  It’s never happened before where the party in power does so well in  a mid-term despite horrible numbers going into the election.”

Robert Hubbell echoed that conclusion in his daily newsletter, writing that preventing the anticipated Red Wave was “no small thing.” Democrats battled gerrymandering, “a slew of voter suppression laws, inflation at a 40-year high, a sustained disinformation campaign against democracy, and low presidential favorability ratings. Despite all that, they made a strong showing that should give Republicans pause for the next two years.”

What should give Republicans pause and what will give Republicans pause, of course, are two very different things. That said, the pundits who confidently predicted that concerns about inflation would overwhelm fury about abortion were proven wrong– at least according to exit polls. Voters reported that the two issues were fairly even motivators. (Hmm…a temporary rise in the price of eggs versus loss of a fundamental right to personal autonomy…sure, those seem roughly equivalent. Not.)

In the five states where abortion rights were on the ballot, voters massively supported those rights. Even in Kentucky!

Here in my deep Red state of Indiana, the election denying, sexual assaulting, incompetent (and arguably criminal) candidate with an R next to his name won his election for Secretary of State, and will be in charge of the election in 2024 if he hasn’t been arrested before that. (In non-urban areas of Indiana, it takes more than stupidity and criminal behavior to defeat a Republican.Even in suburbs that are slowly turning purple, regressive culture-war candidates for Congress and school boards eked out depressing wins.)

In urban areas of the state, however, sanity mostly prevailed. Indianapolis’ incumbent Prosecutor won handily, and we re-elected our highly competent, legislatively-skilled and all-around nice guy Congressman, Andre Carson. In Northwest Indiana, where Republicans had mounted a challenge to the first-term Democratic Congressman, the Democrat prevailed.

What is abundantly clear is that America is conducting something approximating a civil war between Blue cities and the Red states in which they are located.

The bottom line–if there is such a line–seems to be that neither party delivered a knock-out punch. Those of us who want to elect candidates who are actually interested in governing–on addressing the thorny policy issues we face at the local, state and federal levels–will have to contend with at least two years of gridlock (at best) and sustained culture war  waged by would-be autocrats(at worst).

The good news is: we lived to fight another day…