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A puzzle on US politics

June 13th, 2006

One of the striking features of US politics over the past fifteen years is the rise of partisan feeling. The blogosphere reflects this, and has helped to accelerate it. Whereas US political discussion used to be dominated by appeals to bipartisanship there now seems to be more party-specific rancour than, for example, in Australia.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of commentary about the absence of competitive races and the increasing advantage of incumbency.

These two trends seem inconsistent to me. Of course, with strong partisan loyalties you expect a fair number of safe seats for either party, but the discussion of incumbency is mostly about the strength of individual incumbents. And even with many safe seats, there ought also to be a large number of marginals.

Has anyone attempted to reconcile these conflicting trends?

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  1. Peter Evans
    June 13th, 2006 at 11:42 | #1

    I think if the two parties can agree on anything, it’s to gerrymander House of Representatives districts into safe districts. There are plenty of pretty oddly shaped boundaries – dog bones and donuts a speciality! Seriously, it’s bizarre, and as I understand it, for most states (all?) setting federal district boundaries is the responisibilty of State legislatures. Somtimes this is a ruthless game (eg, what Tom Delay did in Texas to generate more Republican districts) but mostly the parties connive. Of the 435 Reps districts, about 30 or so are considered genuine contests. A joke.

    The increasingly rancourous partisanship is a branding exercise. To the victor,the spoils. An the victor always represents a lot of money.

    -p

  2. Peter Evans
    June 13th, 2006 at 11:43 | #2

    ahem… – that’s “dog legs”!

  3. Katz
    June 13th, 2006 at 12:32 | #3

    Some partial explanations:

    1. In large parts of the US politics takes on aspects of a one-party state. The most interesting contests don’t occur between Dem or Rep but over candidacy for the dominant party. The party primary or caucus is the location of the interesting political struggles.

    2. Incumbency is cemented by redistricting. There is a good discussion of that phenomenon here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerrymander

    3. All the above begs the question about the nature of political association and allegiance. The outbreak of the “culture wars” has stimulated the rise of “culture politics”. Electoral battles in the US have tended to cease being auctions for political support and have become set pieces fought over symbolic and irreconcilable positions. The Right has been particularly adept at nurturing and mobilising political support in this way.

  4. gz
    June 13th, 2006 at 13:25 | #4

    Seems to me that both trends are the same. More partisan feeling means fewer swing voters–even if you dislike “your” candidate, you’re now much more likely to vote for him because you find the other side’s leaders too distateful to support, even indirectly.

    All of which would imply fewer seats that are truly up for grabs. If only a few voters even consider voting against party lines, then an advantage of just a couple percent for one side in a district makes what was open now “safe” for one side.

  5. still working it out
    June 13th, 2006 at 14:03 | #5

    Even today the partisianship of US politics is an order of magnitude less than in Australia. Its unusual to have a vote that goes strictly along party lines as opposed to Australia where the opposite is the case. This is really a result of the fact that the political parties in the US are unbelievably de-centralised by the standards of most other democracies. Candidates have traditionally been largely responsible for their own fund raising and election campaigns. As such they can happily thumb their nose at head office and vote their own best interests ahead of the party.

    Over the last decade the senior Republican leadership have figured out two things.
    1) Having a disciplined caucus is a big political advantage
    2) You can create a disciplined caucus by controlling policical donations from “K Street” lobbyists.

    Essentially what happened is that the senior Republican leadership made a deal with K Street. K Street agreeed to make their donations to candidates at the direction of the Republican leadership. This gave the Republican leadership real power over members of their caucus. In return the senior Republican leadership used this power to ensure the passage of bills friendly to K Street and push agendas that would win the Republican party as a whole more seats.

    This changed the dynamics of Republicans in congress from each member being able to individually raise campaign donations from lobbyists, to having to go through Republican head office, who forced them to toe the party line. Natually enough the Republican leadership has been continuously purging people who do not agree with it with the result that most of the moderate voices on the Republican side are either gone or silent. This the cause of the increasing partisianship in the US.

    The reason that the strength of incumbency has not counter-acted this new Republican dynamic is due to the fact that the incumbency advantage is largely a fund raising advantage. Being in office makes it much easier to raise more funds than your opponent. It gives you more time to raise funds, time to develop relationships with donors and gives you a proven track record in delivering for them.

    But nowadays, especially for the newer Republican members of Congress, access to donors is controlled by the Republican leadership. So even though incumbents have a bigger advantage than ever, it is only available if you don’t buck the party line.

  6. June 13th, 2006 at 14:45 | #6

    Even today the partisanship of US politics is an order of magnitude less than in Australia. Its unusual to have a vote that goes strictly along party lines as opposed to Australia where the opposite is the case.

    That’s a fine analysis, except that I think what you mean to say was party discipline. That’s a slightly different thing – and applies only to serving members of the legislature. Yep, Australia has got more party discipline than the U.S., but less partisanship through the rest of society.

    That goes double for the blogosphere. The American blogosphere is extremely divided between Left and Right, and that goes double for the commentators that visit them. By comparison, JQ’s blog (and a few others like Catallaxy and Troppo) are open to people of pretty much all political persuasions. Just keep it civil, and you’ll be fine. That’s to the credit of Australia

    I think the U.S. Constitution is broken. Under it, it’s a State responsibility to draw up the districts, so I think it would be illegal to set up an national independent commission like the AEC. That’s a shame.

  7. June 13th, 2006 at 15:09 | #7

    As for why the blogosphere over there is more partisan? Simple. George W. Bush and his administration. He is awful in so many ways that the Left can’t help but be partisan: incompetence on Katrina, dictatorial tendencies, compulsive secrecy, a bungled war in Iraq, Darth Cheney, etc.

  8. still working it out
    June 13th, 2006 at 15:11 | #8

    I’m not sure its all that different. When talking about votes most US websites seem to use the word partisian as synonomous for “along party lines”. To make the point properly I guess I should add that I believe the rise in partisian feeling is a result of the increase in partisianship of Congress itself.

    But I take your point that I have misinterpreted what was being asked.

  9. Paul Kelly the footy player and journo
    June 13th, 2006 at 15:30 | #9

    Quite so Saigon.

    The last two presidential elections were both the closest – both seat and vote wise – in decades. Which might make the ‘presidential’ seat marginal.

    But should we expect decreased partisanship to lead to an increase of seats changing hands, or an increase in marginality? Not sure we should.

  10. June 13th, 2006 at 15:50 | #10

    I’d agree that more people are dissatisfied now with the parties – ergo looking for alternatives – but that they’re more locked into the existing choices. It’s one of the beautiful things about being a politician. You can set your own salary, your own term lengths, my, even if and when you’re elected, by transferring your position into an executive bureaucratic organ of state, or by moving into a private sector job that you scouted and prepped while in office.

    More people that I know are dissatisfied generally with both choices than happy with one or the other. I know for me, I feel the need to pick a lesser of two evils, when I’d rather vote libertarian than choose Republican or Democrat (in my eyes, just Fascist and Communist parties reborn, in all their negative connotation).

    But as long as secession doesn’t seem possible, there’s going to be no concession to third-party candidates. Actually, I’d recommend to liberal left groups to get behind or alongside the libertarian “Freedom Project”, which might gain small parties enough clout to at least earn some self-determination.

  11. June 13th, 2006 at 17:25 | #11

    Ladies and gentlemen. Since we’re on the subject of partisanship and party discipline, let me present for you this Washington Post article on Tom Delay’s last speech to the House of Reps.

    This was not the case of a politician who happened to hit a jarring note at just the wrong time. DeLay made clear that he wanted to leave the way he behaved throughout his 22 years in Washington — contemptuous of the opposition and unrepentant about his cutthroat tactics.

    “In preparing for today, I found that it is customary in speeches such as these to reminisce about the good old days of political harmony and across-the-aisle camaraderie, and to lament the bitter, divisive partisan rancor that supposedly now weakens our democracy,” DeLay said.

    “Well, I can’t do that,” he said, and that statement had the ring of truth, as if his allergy to bipartisanship is an almost physical limitation. In DeLay’s world, “It is not the principled partisan, however obnoxious he may seem to his opponents, who degrades our public debate, but the preening, self-styled statesman who elevates compromise to a first principle.”

    This is a man who — now that he’s had time to take in the monuments — sees Lincoln’s statue and fixates on the one hand clenched in a “perpetual fist.”

    The man always reminds me of the movie Naked Lunch. He’s an ex-exterminator, after all, and I wonder if all the “bug powder” is having an effect. I could even see him doing a William Tell on lobbyists…

  12. Mike Pepperday
    June 13th, 2006 at 18:59 | #12

    SWIO
    You might be off the point but it’s related and it is an interesting new dynamic. If it persists (and the Democrats do the same) it should change US politics, ultimately perhaps for the better.

    Can you say how it came about? How did the Republican Party persuade K Street that it would be more effective to go through the party – especially since K Street is not an entity but myriad individual firms?

  13. June 13th, 2006 at 21:36 | #13

    Nixon said “we run to the right in the primary, and to the centre in the presidential race” ……….

    I think it’s the case as well that the Dems need to expand from their base vote more in the swing states – so they should be appealing more to bi-partisan sentiment than the Republicans who have a more reliable and strong base vote.

    Clinton is the calssic Democrat candidate for modern times. Kerry was a disaster, H. Clinton will be too Nth Eastern as well, and Dean is the classic anti-victory candidate.

    You still need a Southerner or a Mid-West identity to carry a bi-partisan day.

    I still think that the Republicans need a bi-partisan figure in 2008 to win – and John McCain fits the bill. Scandals aside, McCain the best candidate for the centre that either party has – he will be the most likely victor post Bush.

    The American “centre” is further to the right than elsewhere …….

    Thoughts?

  14. milano803
    June 14th, 2006 at 04:15 | #14

    SWIO, great analysis, I agree with you on most of it.

    Although I’m not sure there really IS more partisanship than previously in our history, it’s just that we’re living now and it seems stronger. Back in the Kennedy days, the Goldwater days, even the Reagan days, partisanship was ferocious. Back in Abraham Linclon’s time, partisanship was also ferocious. We forget how much partisanship there really was because we only see what’s right in front of us. A serious review of American history would find partisanship the whole way through.

    I do think the fringes are more vocal and get more attention today that they used to. The 10% on the far right and left certainly get more than their share of cameratime. But the 80% who are not on the fringes, usually aren’t yellow dog democrats or republican-only voters. That 80% sees mich of the same things coming out of both parties. The corruption, the grandstanding, etc.

    I also agree with Corin, that Clinton was the classic dem, who could appeal to repubs too. Reagan was that for the repubs. Huge numbers of dems voted for Reagan. It is important to avoid fringe candidates for any party who wants to win. Buchanan, back when he WAS a repub, would have been a fringe candidate. Today Dean would be for the dems.

  15. still working it out
    June 14th, 2006 at 09:57 | #15

    Mike Pepperday,

    Basically Tom Delay and company threatened to block the legislation of any lobbyist who did not play the game.

    The below article is probably the definitive explaination of how it works.

    http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2003/0307.confessore.html

    Reading through it again I realise that I have put too much blame on Republicans. Democrats actually started it all back when they were in control of Congress, but it was never anywhere near as organised as it is today. Democrats and Big Business always had opposing interests so they found it very hard to co-operate.

    When the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 for the first time 40 years everything changed. Republicans and Big Business basically had the same interests so co-operation became easy and even mutally beneficial. The system has been in overdrive ever since.

  16. O6
    June 14th, 2006 at 11:09 | #16

    Not much discussion of turnout. Voluntary voting leads to different political behaviour. US voter turnout is only 50% or so. Consequently, US parties have concentrated on getting the faithful to the booths, rather than catching the swinging voters, as so often here. This means that strident partisanship has a bigger role in the US, not that we’re exactly short of it here.

  17. milano803
    June 14th, 2006 at 12:40 | #17

    It would be interesting to know if more people cross party vote in the US or in Australia. It’s pretty common in the US, a presidential candidate really cannot win without swing voters.

  18. Katz
    June 14th, 2006 at 15:27 | #18

    I vote differently for the Senate and the H of R. Although, given what the ALP did with its Senate preferences in Vic at the last election (I helped elect Family First) I may well change my mind next time, after having read the small print.

    It is clear that very many people vote differently at Fed and State elections. This is perhaps one of the most interesting political phenomena in present day Australia.

  19. Bemused
    June 14th, 2006 at 17:32 | #19

    Partisanship is one thing, the lengths to which people are prepared to push it is another.

    The last two US Presidential elections saw partisan electoral officials hard at work disenfranchising those unlikely to favour their candidate and otherwise acting to affect the outcome. The Republicans were far and away the most successful and there are grounds for suspecting the last two elections were ‘won’ in this manner.
    Robert F. Kennedy Jr. argues the case in relation to 2004 here http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/10432334/was_the_2004_election_stolen

    Australia has avoided much of this ugliness by having the Commonwealth Electoral Commission staffed by non-partisan bureaucrats.

    However, there are disquieting signs that the Liberals are learning from the Republicans and the legislation currently being debated in the Senate this week would earn warm approval from the Republican ‘fixers’. Prof George Williams discusses it here http://www.theage.com.au/news/opinion/shrinking-democracy/2006/06/12/1149964465150.html

    Perhaps an ominous foretaste of what we can expect from a desperate ‘Liberal’ government fearing defeat.

  20. stoptherubbish
    June 14th, 2006 at 18:19 | #20

    How is it that the people who are so busy reassurring us that everybody just loves the neo liberal political economy being foisted upon us, are at the very same time, busy trying to make it harder and harder for people to actually cast a ballot whereupon their real attitude to the current debacle may be recorded. Nothing illustrates more the depths that current neo cons and their fellow travellers on the right have plumbed, than the blatant and persistent attempts to limit the franchise, both here in OZ, and of course, scandalously in the US. What next? The return of the property qualification to vote?

  21. milano803
    June 15th, 2006 at 02:20 | #21

    “It is clear that very many people vote differently at Fed and State elections. This is perhaps one of the most interesting political phenomena in present day Australia.”

    It’s very alive and well in the US too. People will vote for a republican presidential candidate but a democratic representative or governor. I do it myself all the time. I wonder how many true party line voters are actually out there?

    rubbish, if there were any evidence that people had been prevented from voting in the 2004 US presidential election, I’d be the very first to agree with you. So far, no one has identified any disenfranchised voters. I am for voter identification at the polls, but not for a return to paper ballots.

  22. June 15th, 2006 at 12:59 | #22

    The ‘culture wars’ are an elite phenomoeon, American public opinion is much more diverse and has been trending in a liberal direction for decades with the exception of capital punishment and abortion where it has bounced around. However party-line voting has become more common.

  23. stoptherubbish
    June 15th, 2006 at 13:03 | #23

    milano803 voter identification is simply one very small part part of the overall issue concerning the state of the franchise in the US. It is clear to many observers that the difficulties encountered by working people in the US in actually getting to cast a ballot (polling taking 12 hours, ordinary working day, no control over the number of booths available to ensure equal access for all etc) together with considerable doubt concerning the securty and integrity of the voting machines designed by Diebold, that a return to paper ballots in the US in the way we have them in this country, might actually assist in ensuring, in a small way, that people actually get to cast a vote, which can be checked and rechecked if necessary.

    In this way, we lessen the chance of Courts electing the government, rather than the citizens, and we stick to the basic democratic principle-the security and integrity of the voters intention regarding their choice of candidate should be the paramount interest in designing a system for ballotting.

  24. milano803
    June 15th, 2006 at 23:34 | #24

    “milano803 voter identification is simply one very small part part of the overall issue concerning the state of the franchise in the US.”

    I agree.

    “It is clear to many observers that the difficulties encountered by working people in the US in actually getting to cast a ballot (polling taking 12 hours, ordinary working day, no control over the number of booths available to ensure equal access for all etc)”

    Legally, employers in the US must give employees time to vote. If you are in line prior to closing time at a polling station, you do get to vote. I would be happy to agree with you if any one of the numerous efforts to find voters prevented from voting had turned up even one person. So far that has not been the case. Also, so far, there’s been no indication that anyone waits 12 hours to vote although I know it’s makes a good, if a bit hysterical, soundbite.

    “In this way, we lessen the chance of Courts electing the government”

    courts do not elect governments in the US.

    “and we stick to the basic democratic principle-the security and integrity of the voters intention regarding their choice of candidate should be the paramount interest in designing a system for ballotting.”

    I agree, I just don’t think paper balloting makes much sense anymore.

  25. Bemused
    June 16th, 2006 at 09:25 | #25

    “courts do not elect governments in the US.”
    Strange, I seem to recall a relatively recent case (2000) when the Supreme Court decided not to allow the votes to be counted and in effect awarded the Presidency to Dubbya.
    The court in that case most definitely “elected” the President.
    Of course had the votes been counted the result my have been the same but we will never really know.
    And who was it that was so strident in their opposition to the votes being counted? None other than the highly partisan electoral officials aligned with the court decided “winner”.
    This is all very odd to Australians as we go to great lengths to ensure EVERY vote is counted and recounted as many times as necessary to be sure of the voters choice in a close run contest.

    “Also, so far, there’s been no indication that anyone waits 12 hours to vote although I know it’s makes a good, if a bit hysterical, soundbite.”

    Hmmm did you bother to read the Robert F. Kennedy Jr article I cited above? There are numerous other reports of all sorts of blatant rorts being run by the Republicans to make it difficult for voters suspected of Democratic tendencies to exercise their franchise.

  26. milano803
    June 16th, 2006 at 09:39 | #26

    There has never been a USSC case to decide a US presidency. Bush vs Gore was not “does Bush win or does Gore win”.

    The vortes were counted SEVERAL times.

    If you have any evidence of anyone being prevented from voting or waiting in line 12 hours to vote, I’ll look at it. So far, no one has produced any such evidence. Considering how few Americans vote at all, it’s not believable that anyone waited 12 hours to do so.

  27. Bemused
    June 16th, 2006 at 11:54 | #27

    Some votes in Florida were counted several times. Many were never counted at all.

    The statement: “There has never been a USSC case to decide a US presidency. Bush vs Gore was not “does Bush win or does Gore winâ€?.” is pure sophistry. Everybody was well aware of what was at issue.

    Sorry, I was not there to collect the evidence but there are an abundance of reports from people who were there.

    Perhaps international observers should be sent in next time?

  28. milano803
    June 16th, 2006 at 12:06 | #28

    “Some votes in Florida were counted several times. Many were never counted at all.”

    No, but I know that’s a good soundbite.

    “The statement: “There has never been a USSC case to decide a US presidency. Bush vs Gore was not “does Bush win or does Gore winâ€?.â€? is pure sophistry.”

    A lot of people haven’t a clue what Bush vs. Gore was about. If you think it was either brought to decide the presidency or that it did, you’re one of them. Review the opinion.

    “Sorry, I was not there to collect the evidence but there are an abundance of reports from people who were there.”

    Then names should surely be available, no?

    “Perhaps international observers should be sent in next time?”

    you’ll have no trouble finding observers to agree to come. Maybe some Cubans? Congolese? Mexicans? Sudanese? Palestinians? Russians? The problem would be, how do we then get them to go home?

  29. Bemused
    June 18th, 2006 at 15:21 | #29

    My final response to Milano803
    1. There was widespread media reporting at the time of all the Florida antics both preceeding the ballot (culling the electoral roll of likely Democrats) and after the ballot to prevent votes being counted to retain a possibly fluke Bush majority. Try the archives of any major US newspaper.
    2. Whatever the technical contest in Bush vs Gore, everyone knew at the time, and knows now, that the practical effect was to hand the election to Bush. Except it seems Milano803 and a few other hard core denialists.
    3. International observers? Great debating technique setting up a straw man like you have. Try Western European, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand for a start.

  30. milano803
    June 18th, 2006 at 16:28 | #30

    1. Then names should not be a problem.

    2. The USSC doesn’t “hand” elections to anyone.

    3. I’d be delighted to have international observers. You pick the country. And then round em up and make sure they leave.

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