Category Archives: United States of America

Choosing Their Nominee: The Democrats’ Not So “Invisible” Primary

The invisible primary just became a lot more visible.  

On the nights of June 26th and 27th, 20 of the 25 announced candidates for the Democrat presidential nomination took the stage in Miami – 10 candidates each night – in the first head-to-head debates of the 2019-20 election season. The twenty were chosen based on drawing at least 1% support in three polls or by raising money from at least 65,000 unique donors. Three more sets of debates are scheduled for late July, September and October.  These are perhaps the most important campaign events taking place during what political scientists dub the “invisible primary” – the period prior to the start of the actual delegate selection process in next February’s Iowa caucuses.  For party activists, the debates provide an opportunity to gauge candidates’ policy positions and their electoral viability. The goal is to select a candidate who most represents the party’s ideological center-of-gravity while generating enough support to win the general election. Based in part on these judgments, the activists will then use endorsements, financial contributions and other signaling devices to begin culling candidates from the race even before public voting begins.  

The debates are a reminder, however, that the media also plays an important and somewhat independent role in this winnowing process.  And its interest does not fully coincide with that of party activists.  As a for-profit industry, the media focuses much more on attracting a large audience – a prerequisite for generating advertising revenue.  To do so, its coverage tends to emphasize controversy, and to center on candidate personalities and horse race strategy as opposed to substantive policy discussion.

Coverage of the first two Democrat debates highlight the media’s independent role during the invisible primary.  One indication is the relative media focus on the second of the two debates. Due to the luck of the draw, most of the top-tier candidates, including the purported front-runner former Vice President Joe Biden, senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, were in the second debate.  This left Senator Elizabeth Warren, along with senators Corey Booker and Amy Klobuchar, as the main attractions during the first debate.  Not surprisingly, the second debate attracted greater media attention and, as a consequence, generated higher ratings, with nearly 18.1 million viewers tuning in – a number that broke the record for the biggest television audience for a Democratic primary debate – compared to about 15 million who watched the first debate.  This meant that although Warren was judged by most commentators to have performed well, she does not appear to have generated much if any momentum from her debate performance.  Nor did others, including Booker and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, both of whom were also viewed as having had a strong performances during the first debate.  Instead, it was the second debate that seems to have had the bigger impact on the race, at least as gauged by media commentary and early polling.

The debate format and the questions asked by moderators, and to whom, also showed the media’s focus on the horse race and its role handicapping the field in ways that favored some candidates over others.  Candidates were only allowed 60 seconds to answer questions and 30 seconds to respond to follow-ups, which meant they might get at most 10 minutes of talking time during a two-hour debate.  This left little time for substantive discussion, and instead placed a premium on candidates’ ability to generate memorable sound bites. Indeed, on some key issues, such as whether they supported providing health care to undocumented immigrants, candidates were simply asked to raise their hand rather than to explain their positions. Not surprisingly, on both nights those candidates who entered the night near the top of the polls ended up getting the most speaking time.  To be sure, the differences were slight, often measured in minutes or less, but with 10 candidates vying to get their message across, even slight differences in speaking time can be significant.  This left second-tier candidates forced to cut into the conversation in order to be heard. As a consequence there were frequent moments of candidates talking over each other. 

Equally important, however, is how the media conducted its debate post-mortem. By focusing on a specific exchanges between candidates, or framing the debate through a specific lens, media coverage can influence perceptions regarding winners and losers in ways that do not necessarily coincide with party interests, as Republican activists learned to their dismay in 2016 when media coverage of Donald Trump’s debate performances helped solidify his lead in the polls.  Although the Democrat field lacks a candidate with Trump’s capacity to stir an audience, the post-debate coverage does appear to have benefited some candidates while hurting others, at least marginally.  Harris, in particular, seems to have gained the most due largely to the media replaying her exchange with Biden regarding his opposition during the 1970’s to federally-mandated forced busing to integrate public schools.  Harris sought to personalize the issue, and to paint Biden as out-of-touch on civil rights, by noting that she was bused as part of the second class to integrate her public school. Biden seemed to respond defensively, arguing that he supported busing as a local choice, but not as a federal mandate. Most media accounts of the second debate highlighted that exchange as the lead story – a choice that worked in Harris’ favor, even though in the weeks after the debate it became clear that Harris’ stance on busing was, in fact, quite similar to Biden’s. By then, however, the media had already cast the debate as a victory for Harris, and she received an 8% boost in the aggregate polls, pushing her to 15% support and in a virtual tie with Sanders and Warren for second place behind Biden. Most of Harris’ surge, moreover, appears to have come at Biden’s expense; his post-debate aggregate polling numbers dropped six points down to 26%.

It bears repeating that this was one set of debates, and that it is still early in the nominating race.  The upcoming debates will undoubtedly generate more media-defined moments that may further reshuffle the top half of the field.  However, most of the current front-runners have the resources to make it to Iowa, no matter what happens in the debates.  For second tier candidates, on the other hand, the prospects of surviving the invisible primary are far less certain.  As of today 14 candidates appear to have cleared the threshold for the July debates, which leaves 11 candidates jockeying for the final six debate slots.  Moreover, for the September and October debates, the bar to get on the debate stage increases to 2 percent in four qualifying polls and 130,000 unique donors, which may further winnow the field. Whether these second-tier candidates participate in debates or not, history teaches that the media’s focus on the horserace and its desire for a competitive nominating contest will lead them to signal that these candidates are not electorally viable.  That negative coverage will likely contribute to their dropping out of the race even before voting begins, as campaign resources begin to dry up.

Potential debate flash points going forward include candidates’ positions on health care, immigration, trade policy and foreign policy.  In handicapping the field, two cleavages stand out.  One is between candidates such as Biden, Klobuchar and Gillibrand who emphasize their relative pragmatism and ability to defeat Trump versus the more progressive firebrands like Warren, Sanders and Harris who believe the Democrat voters have moved left and will embrace a more left-leaning candidate. A second divide is generational, pitting the older candidates including Biden, Warren and Sanders against a younger cohort who are seeking support from millennial voters. It remains to be seen which side of these divides will prove more popular, with whom – and how the media will judge the results.

Guest post: “Going Public” in Comparative Perspective: Presidents’ Public Appeals under Pure Presidentialism

Presidents’ abilities to connect with the public are of utmost political importance. As the focal leader of the nation, presidents can leverage their unique connection to this nation-wide constituency to influence their negotiations with the legislative branch. In pure presidential systems, the constitutional separation of origin and survival of the political executive demands constant negotiation and compromise across independent branches of government, incentivizing the president to rely on this unique connection with the public.

While historically, U.S. presidents may have relied on inter-branch negotiations and backroom deals, modern American presidents live and die by their connection to the public: their electoral campaigns take root years in advance, and many attempt to maintain said political momentum with ongoing direct public appeals throughout their administration. Whether it’s FDR’s radio broadcast Fireside Chats to Donald Trump’s ubiquitous use of social media, leveraging public support has become a tool in the president’s arsenal to strategically wield when deemed necessary.  Indeed, many scholars and political spectators attribute President Obama’s campaign success to his effective use of social media and then note the continuance of this strategy of direct public appeals throughout his presidency, taking the form of speeches and weekly YouTube addresses throughout his administration. Direct public appeals, so the story goes, enable U.S. presidents to apply indirect pressure on members of Congress, thereby improving the chances that the presidents’ preferred policy would be adopted into law.

The public presidency is not uniquely American. Work on populism throughout the developing world identifies the rise of anti-establishment rhetoric and the lack of an institutionalized parties as two key facilitating conditions for the emergence of populist leaders.  In all pure presidential systems, presidents may leverage their electoral connection with the nationwide constituency in order to sidestep the negotiations that the institutional separation of powers imposes, applying indirect pressure to legislative coalitions.

Although the notion of ‘going public’ has its origins in U.S. presidency, we have little sense of how direct appeals to the public fit into the broader portfolio of presidential powers. Our research situates presidents’ direct public appeals in the broader portfolio of comparative presidential powers. Rather than construe populism and presidents’ plebiscitarian orientation as a personality trait or leadership style, we consider how a president’s propensity to appeal to the public may vary in response to changes in the bargaining environment, which may vary both across countries and over time as a function of institutional, personal and political factors. In our forthcoming article in Presidential Studies Quarterly, we show show that the frequency of presidents’ public appeals varies with both their partisan support in the legislature, their status as a newcomer to the political system, and electoral and legislative institutions. Further, we make available our original data such that we might not be the last to investigate this sort of question.

We debut the Presidential Speeches of the Americas (PSA) dataset, which is a dataset and archive of appearances and speeches made by 24 presidents across 18 pure presidential systems of the western hemisphere. These data contain the records of presidents’ speeches and public appearances as advertised on the official websites of the presidency, most of which contain the transcript of the presidential address. Our aim was to collect as much information as possible, harvesting presidential speech archives for as long as they were made available online. Most sitting presidents maintain an online archive of presidential activities and speeches, and in several countries online archives were also available for previous presidential administrations through the WayBack Internet Archive. An overview of the data contained in the PSA dataset is shown in Table 1. This dataset and archive include records of (and in most cases transcripts of) more than 12,500 presidential speeches, made by 24 presidents in 18 pure presidential systems throughout the western hemisphere. It is available to the public, may be found on the website https://www.psa-dataset-archive.com

In our forthcoming paper, we collapsed all observations in the PSA dataset into a monthly count of presidential speeches, such that we could track the covariance of presidential speechmaking with our explanatory variables. The heatmap shows the cross-sectional distribution of the monthly average number of presidential appearances as reported on the online press archives of the office of the presidency. Though not shown here in the interest of space, President Obama averaged 36 public speeches and appearances per month over the course of his two terms in office. The hemispheric median number of speeches per month is 7, though the data skews positive, with a mean of nearly 12. President Obama shares the distinction of having the highest number of presidential appearances with President Santos of Colombia, with 56 public appearances in a single calendar month.

Shifting our focus across countries and overtime, we see that beyond individual personality traits, institutional and political contexts offer substantial explanatory power as well. When presidents have less partisan support in the legislature, are in open list electoral systems, have bicameral legislatures, or are political outsiders, they are more likely to appeal to the public.

We set out to fill an important lacunae in the research on comparative presidentialism, to sys- systematically consider how presidents’ direct public appeals serve as one resource among many that presidents may use to advance their policy agendas. To that end, we introduce and publicize a new dataset and archive of presidential speeches, the Presidential Speeches of the Americas dataset and archive. Our statistical analysis of a subset of the PSA data suggests that presidents’ direct appeals to the public might serve as a substitute for other sorts of presidential powers, either those derived from their support in the legislature, or those granted to the executive in constitutional texts. These results underscore the advantage of considering ‘going public’ in a comparative perspective, wherein variance in institutional and partisan support can be empirically considered.

For additional information, or to find our forthcoming research at Presidential Studies Quarterly, please visit our website at https://www.psa-dataset-archive.com.

Authors: Alexandra Cockerham, Florida State University; Amanda Driscoll, Florida State University; Joan Joseph, MIT

Posted by Fiona Yap on behalf of authors

Donald Trump: The Populist Political Superhero

This is a guest post by Andrea Schneiker (University of Siegen, Germany). It based on her recent article ‘Telling the Story of the Superhero and the Anti-Politician as President: Donald Trump’s Branding on Twitter’ in Political Studies Review which is available here.

With heads of states such as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Donald Trump, populism has climbed into the driver’s seat of powerful states. While much has been written on populism, and populist foreign policy in particular, we still know little about populist leadership. If one defining principle of populism is its anti-elitism, how can populists such as Donald Trump maintain the illusion of not belonging to the ruling elite, once they become heads of state? The figure of the superhero can help us to answer this question. By adopting the image of a superhero, populist leaders can pretend to be ordinary citizens while at the same time ruling the country. Donald Trump is the prime example of such a ‘populist political superhero’. In the following and based on an analysis of Donald Trump’s tweets — posted on his account @realDonaldTrump between March 2016 and January 2019 — I will briefly explain the characteristics of the superhero that make it a perfect fit for populist leadership, and highlight the consequences of such populist leadership for democracy and for foreign policy.

Instagram post by Donald Trump Jr. from 21 October 2017 (© Donald Trump Jr. 2017, displayed here under fair use)

Just like Spiderman, Superman or James Bond, the superhero marketed by Donald Trump is an ordinary citizen who, in case of an emergency, uses his superpowers to save others, in this case: the United States of America. To portray himself as an ordinary citizen, Donald Trump not only presents himself as a proud husband and father, but also regularly claims that he is close to everyday citizens and understands the problems and needs of ordinary Americans. For example, he tweets that he knows what they are worried about—namely, ‘rising crime, failing schools and vanishing jobs’ (1 August 2016). Furthermore, in line with the figure of the superhero, Donald Trump claims that he is the only one who can solve and respond to these problems and needs. No matter whether it is about national security, economy, or tax laws, Donald Trump proposes that he is the only one who can fix even existential problems.

According to Donald Trump, the need for a superhero to solve the problems of ordinary Americans and the nation as such arises from the inability of politicians to do so. Hence, the populist superhero is necessarily an anti-politician. Consequently, it is no surprise that Donald Trump uses words such as ‘politician’ and ‘politics’ in a derogatory way. He presents ‘politicians’ as by definition apart from the people, as an elite class, as the establishment. He portrays his rival politicians as incompetent, unable to solve problems, and as untrustworthy – supposedly his complete opposite. This strategy was not limited to his presidential campaign in which he, for example, criticized his rival Hillary Rodham Clinton (HRC) for ‘never [having] created a job in her life’ (20 October 2016) and declared that ‘Owned by Wall St and Politicians, HRC is not with you.’ (1 October 2016). Donald Trump continues to blame politicians for their incompetence after he became President. In November 2018, for example, he tweeted ‘Of course we should have captured Osama Bin Laden long before we did. I pointed him out in my book just BEFORE the attack on the World Trade Center. President Clinton famously missed his shot.’ (19 November 2018).

Yet, in contrast to superheroes such as Superman, the populist superhero Donald Trump cannot operate in secrecy or in disguise. In order to differentiate himself from his competitors and politicians, Donald Trump has to convince the audience (his electorate), that he is better suited than anyone else to deliver on this promises, i.e. to solve problems. Hence, Donald Trump needs the world to know that he, and only he, can fix and has fixed a situation. Otherwise, he could not use his alleged exceptional problem-solving capacity as a unique selling point.

Twitter as communication channel fits perfectly the requirements of such populist leadership. It is fairly anti-elitist in that it is easily accessible as wireless technology allows for a tweet to be posted and read from almost anywhere at any time. On the one hand, Twitter provides a platform that Donald Trump can use to tell the world whatever he has done or plans to do. On the other hand, in order to know about what Donald Trump is doing, people do not have to listen to press conferences or read the newspaper – they just need to access Twitter. People can also ‘follow’ Donald Trump or even address him directly by using his @username reference – @realDonaldTrump. All these features create the impression of proximity between Donald Trump and ordinary citizens.

Yet, this is just an illusion, because this type of populist leadership, and the use of Twitter to communicate it, denigrate democratic politics. The populist political superhero reflects an understanding of political decision-making as an authoritative setting of ‘the truth’ by one supposedly competent individual, instead of through a deliberative process based on pluralistic ideas and interests. Furthermore, claims that current problems such as lacking job opportunities are the fault of incompetent politicians (rather than complex political decision-making and interdependencies in a globalised world) arguably oversimplify the issue. Such simplifications can be posted on Twitter without having to engage in a dialogue and without taking into account different opinions. In contrast to, for example, press conferences, Twitter allows Donald Trump to evade critical comments and debates, because questions and comments can remain unanswered. Twitter even, at least in theory, allows for blocking individual users and their comments.

Populist leadership in terms of a superhero is not only consequential for domestic politics. It also has effects on the international level, because it leads to a rejection of multilateralism. The latter generally requires some sort of power restraint and willingness to make compromise based on agreed-upon rules that equally apply to all participating states. Hence, multilateral forms of decision-making are incompatible with the requirements of the superhero – they do not allow Donald Trump to present himself as the one and only problem-solver. In multilateral settings, Donald Trump is just one head of state among many others. Therefore, he prefers bilateral negotiations or what he calls ‘deals’. These allow him to show the world that he is in control of the process, for example by continuously updating the public via Twitter on the state of the negotiations. Thereby, Donald Trump can also present himself as the only person being able to negotiate agreements with other states. This becomes apparent when looking at the US’ relations with North Korea or at the trade negotiations with China. Regarding the latter, Donald Trump for example tweeted that ‘President Xi and I […] are the only two people who can bring about massive and very positive change, on trade and far beyond’ (3 December 2018) and that ‘No final deal will be made until my friend President Xi, and I, meet in the near future to discuss and agree on some of the long standing and more difficult points.’ (31 January 2019).

Overall, the figure of the populist superhero not only explains how populists can continue to pretend to be separate from the elite even after ascending to power; it also reveals populists’ disregard of democratic decision-making processes at the domestic level and for multilateral agreements on the international level.

Andrea Schneiker (schneiker@sozialwissenschaften.uni-siegen.de) is assistant professor (‘Juniorprofessorin’) in Political Science/International Relations at the University of Siegen, Germany. Her research focuses on Global Governance, Peace and Conflict Studies, and Political Communications. She is author and co-editor of several books, including ‘Researching Non-state Actors in International Security’ (Routledge 2017, co-edited with Andreas Kruck) and ‘Humanitarian NGOs, (In)Security and Identity’ (Routledge 2015). She tweets at @ASchneiker.

New publications

Special Issue, Leaders, Crisis Behavior, and International Conflict, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Volume 62 Issue 10, November 2018.

Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, Armenia’s Velvet Revolution: A Special Issue, Volume 26, Number 4, Fall 2018.

Kaitlen J. Cassell, John A. Booth, and Mitchell A. Seligson, ‘Support for Coups in the Americas: Mass Norms and Democratization’, Latin American, Politics and Society, Volume 60, Number 4, pp. 1-25.

Hamid Akin Unver, ‘The fog of leadership: How Turkish and Russian presidents manage information constraints and uncertainty in crisis decision-making’, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 18:3, 325-344, 2018, DOI: 10.1080/14683857.2018.1510207

Trump – Causes and Consequences, series of articles in Perspectives on Politics, available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/perspectives-on-politics/information/trump-causes-and-consequences#

Andrea Schneiker, ‘ Telling the Story of the Superhero and the Anti-Politician as President: Donald Trump’s Branding on Twitter’, Political Studies Review. https://doi.org/10.1177/1478929918807712

Ebenezer Obadare and Adebanwi Wale (eds.). Governance and the crisis of rule in Africa: Leadership in transformation, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Sergey Aleksashenko, Putin’s Counterrevolution, The Brookings Institution Press, located in Washington, D.C, 2018.

The 2018 U.S. Midterms: Unstable Majorities Continue

The results of the Nov. 6 midterm elections extend a level of political instability in the United States not seen since the post-Civil War era more than a century ago. Democrats won at least 34 seats to regain control of the House of Representatives by 228-199 over the Republicans, with winners not yet declared in seven additional races. However, Republicans increased their narrow Senate majority with a net gain of two seats, bringing their majority there to 52-47 over the Democrats. (Republicans will likely hold a 53rd seat when Mississippi concludes its runoff race on November 27.) This means that, when the 116th Congress is sworn in next January, a divided legislature will share control at the national level with a Republican president. As this table demonstrates, the power-sharing arrangement will be the seventh of the eight possible configurations of institutional control of the Presidency, House and Senate the U.S. has experienced since 2001.

What explains this recurring pattern of instability? It is the culmination of a long-term process of partisan sorting and polarization, in which the two major political parties have shed their more ideologically moderate members. The result is a Congress composed of two internally homogeneous parties whose respective ideological centers of gravity are moving apart. In addition to being deeply polarized, the parties are electorally quite evenly matched. This means that when either controls the Senate or House, they see little reason to compromise, and instead seek to take advantage of their brief window as the majority to pass as much of their partisan legislative agenda as possible. Witness the Republican effort, with President Trump’s active support, to roll back Obamacare, including its politically popular coverage of pre-existing illnesses during Trump’s first two years as president. Such legislative overreach elicits the predictable response by the more moderate public: it votes the offending party out of majority control. And so the cycle perpetuates.

In addition to continuing this pattern of instability, the recent midterms also perpetuated the midterm loss phenomenon. Since 1938, the president’s party has lost seats in every House midterm election save two: 1998, when Bill Clinton was fighting an unpopular impeachment effort by Republicans, and 2002, the first midterm after the 9-11 terrorist attack, in which Americans rallied to support the Republican administration. Including these exceptions, the average House loss for the president’s party across all midterms during this period is 29 seats. A similar pattern affects the Senate – on average since 1938, the President’s party has lost four seats during the midterm.

What explains the midterm loss phenomenon? Political scientists have developed three related explanations. The first is the “surge and decline” theory, which posits that, compared to a presidential election year, the midterm turnout is smaller and less likely to contain the same proportion of voters who supported the President and his party two years earlier. A related explanation suggests that midterms often serve as a referendum on the president’s accomplishments to date. From this perspective, as the newly-elected president’s “honeymoon” with the voters inevitably erodes, his approval drops and midterm voters react by voting against his party. The third explanation is that the midterm provides Americans with an opportunity to “balance” control of the major governing institutions, by giving the non-presidential party greater representation in Congress. Of these explanations, the balancing hypothesis probably carries the most weight in an era of deeply-polarized and ideologically well-sorted parties, but there is evidence that all three factors were in play during the latest midterm. At an estimated 49% of eligible voters, turnout was the highest seen in a midterm in more than a century, and much of that was driven by increases in Democratic-leaning voters, including Latinos and younger voters. Trump’s approval rating, meanwhile, which is mired in the low 40’s, also likely contributed to Republicans’ seat loss. Moreover, it is likely that the largely moderate, centrist public sought to balance Republican extremism by handing control of the House over to Democrats.

After the tempestuous 2016 election and first two years of the Trump presidency, with many pundits and even political scientists expressing alarm at Trump’s apparent willingness to break norms of presidential behavior, it is perhaps reassuring that, at least when it comes to the midterm, the conventional electoral dynamics seem still to govern outcomes. As with presidential elections, political scientists have developed forecast models that – although simple in construction – are effective at predicting aggregate House and Senate midterm seat changes. Typically, these models focus on “fundamentals” – how long the president’s party has held on to the White House, how many seats the president’s party has exposed, the president’s approval rating and some measure, such as the change in disposable income, of how voters are doing economically. Note that the most of these variables are in place long before the events that cable news pundits proclaim as “game changers”, such as the controversial nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, or the media focus on the “caravan” of immigrants heading toward the United States’ southern border. Despite slight differences in the variables utilized, all the political science models correctly predicted the Democrat House takeover, with the median forecast predicting a 30-seat gain, and the average of the forecasts at 36 seats. These were quite close to the mark. The same models forecast the Republicans making modest 1-2 seat gains in the Senate, however, primarily because of a historical quirk that found Democrats defending 26 Senate seats, including 10 that voted for Trump in 2016. This was the most Senate seats ever defended by the “out” party since direct popular election of the Senate began in 1914, and it was enough to offset the normal seat loss experienced by the president’s party.

What will the next two years of divided government bring? Already many newly-elected Democrats, reacting to pressure from their more progressive base, are threatening to launch multiple investigations of the president and his administration. This is a potentially risky strategy. With some notable exceptions, progressive Democrats did not do well in the midterms, with most of the Democrats’ gains coming by electing relatively moderate candidates, and some Democrats believe the party would be better positioned to regain the presidency and Senate if it showed it could pass a more centrist legislative agenda, perhaps by working with Republicans in areas like immigration reform and reining in health care costs. Unfortunately, recent history suggests it is more likely that the next two years will bring more partisan bickering, legislative gridlock, and deep dissatisfaction among voters. And if Democrats win the presidency in 2020, while retaining control of the House, and Republicans hold on to the Senate, the country will have cycled through every possible permutation of government control in only two decades. Contrary to the constant claim that Americans are hopelessly divided, it seems instead that a significant number share a deep conviction that both major parties are out of step with the public’s more moderate ideological and policy preferences, and that these centrist voters trust neither party enough to let them govern for very long.

Race, Economics and Identity: Explaining Donald Trump’s 2016 Victory

Why did Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election? In the 20 months since his surprise victory, scholars have taken a deep dive into election-related data seeking answers. Although a full consensus has yet to emerge, they have zeroed in on two likely explanations: race and economics. (While not necessarily mutually exclusive, they are often presented as such.) The case for race is typically based in part on surveys showing that Trump voters score high on measures of “racial resentment,” an index based on responses to a series of questions regarding respondents’ views toward school desegregation, the fair treatment of blacks in employment, the federal government’s role in assisting blacks, and affirmative action in employment and education. The goal of these and similar surveyed-based indices is to identify underlying racial biases that respondents might otherwise be reluctant to reveal. According to scholars utilizing these measures, the higher racial resentment scores among Trump’s supporters is evidence that his victory reflected his ability to stoke latent racial animus among white voters, particularly those in the lower socioeconomic strata.

Not all scholars buy the race-based explanation for Trump’s victory. Morris Fiorina, in his analysis of race, class and identity in the 2016 elections, points out that white support for the Democratic presidential candidate declined from 2012 and 2016. This, he says, raises the perplexing question of “how racism would lead millions of whites who voted for and approved a black president to desert a white Democrat.” One answer is that the “racial resentment” index is not actually identifying racial bias, but instead is tapping into a strain of conservative ideology that opposes race-based policies. In an innovative attempt to discern what racial resentment scores are actually measuring, Riley Carney and Ryan Enos substitute groups other than African-Americans into the racial resentment questions. They find that conservatives’ responses to these questions do not appreciably change when other groups are referenced. Based on these findings, they suggest that, at least for conservatives, racial resentment scores are not measuring racial bias against any particular group so much as a more general belief in a “just world” in which, ideally, one is rewarded for working hard and playing by the rules.

Survey questions, and the racial indices constructed from them, are useful methods of gauging underlying sentiments that respondents might otherwise be reluctant to express. But, in addition to the questions of interpretation cited above, these surveys limit respondents to answering a specific set of questions that may not fully capture the range of sentiments behind their voting behavior. To get around these limits, I conducted a series of open-ended conversations with several dozen Trump supporters at four of his campaign rallies during the 2016 presidential campaign. Their responses provide additional insight into the motivation of Trump voters.
A recurring theme in these conversations was a belief among Trump supporters that, through no fault of their own, they were living in a world in which working hard was no longer a guarantee of success. Citing issues like trade and immigration, they told me that the rules of the game by which they were raised no longer insured a level playing field. These responses are consistent with the “just world” thesis advanced by Carney and Enos in their experimental studies.

However, this does not preclude a racial component to Trump’s support. Even if his voters were not motivated by racial animus, they may still have harbored a shared racial identity rooted in the belief that, as a group, they were adversely affected by what they saw as a rigged political and economic system. It is true that Trump voters were not economically any worse off than were supporters of other candidates. However, in the interviews I conducted, I was struck by how often his supporters talked not about their own economic status, but instead about their fears for their children’s futures. As one Trump supporter in New Hampshire explained to me, “These people still believe in the American Dream about getting ahead, but they think it is slipping away from us.” Similarly, many respondents described their support for Trump as a response to the economic downturn they saw in their communities, rather than in their own home.

These comments are consistent with studies showing a correlation between Trump’s support and the impact of trade on jobs, disparities in health across communities and, particularly in the Midwest where Trump made surprising gains, an unstable housing market. Even though Trump’s supporters might be comparatively well off, they often lived in places where they observed economic hardship that disproportionately affected those on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum.

For his part, Trump proved very effective at validating this perspective. After hearing journalists and political elites routinely describe them as xenophobic, misogynistic and racist, his supporters seemed gratified that Trump recognized their views as a valid response to decades of stagnant wages, lost jobs, and declining hope for the future against the backdrop of a political system that seemed to ignore their concerns. At last, his supporters told me, someone is actually listening to what we are saying, rather than trying to castigate our hidden motives. In short, Trump gave voice to a significant portion of the electorate that felt their concerns were not being addressed by the political establishment.

In contrast, Hillary Clinton ran a campaign that by historical standards, was unusually focused on attacking her opponent’s fitness for office, as opposed to addressing the socioeconomic conditions that concerned many of Trump’s supporters. Even without her ill-fated description of half of Trump’s supporters as belonging in a “basket of deplorables” characterized by “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic” views, one can understand why her campaign strategy may have cued a different voting calculus among some white voters than did Obama’s more economically-focused 2012 campaign against Mitt Romney.

Why did Trump defy predictions to win the 2016 presidential campaign? Analysts continue to sift through the data and, while it is likely they will not fully agree on a single answer, the evidence to date is consistent with the idea that Trump’s message resonated with the concerns of lower- and middle-income white voters in key states who viewed the political system as increasingly unresponsive to their interests. While there was undoubtedly a racial component to Trump’s support, it appears predicated less on racial animus against other groups and more on a shared sense that on key issues, the rules of the game were increasingly stacked against them. By attacking the characteristics of the candidate who spoke to their interests, to say nothing of their motives for supporting him, Clinton may have inadvertently contributed to that group solidarity, thus fueling an erosion of support among many white voters who backed Obama in 2012.

Trump’s White House Merry-Go-Round: Is Kelly The Next To Go?

Is White House Chief of Staff John Kelly about to be fired? Last week President Donald Trump removed his national security adviser H.R. McMaster, replacing him with former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. McMaster’s firing is the latest in a series of changes to Trump’s inner circle, and it immediately prompted speculation that Kelly is the next to go. Rumors regarding Trump’s dissatisfaction with Kelly have circulated for months, with the president reportedly openly speculating about his replacement. However, the difficulties Kelly has faced as chief of staff are not solely a function of Trump’s mercurial temperament. They also reflect a more fundamental tension that inheres in his particular role running the White House on the president’s behalf. Most chiefs see their primary purpose as conserving the most precious asset a president possesses – his time. To do so, chiefs try to centralize managerial authority in their own hands. But this assertion of power can create a backlash. Under powerful chiefs, presidents frequently chafe at what they see as their increasing isolation, a lack of exposure to differing viewpoints, and a sense that the chief is usurping their prerogatives. Reportedly, Trump has repeatedly expressed exactly these sentiments.

The irony is that Kelly is doing exactly what Trump hired him to do last July in response to a series of policy fiascos, including a controversial travel ban mired in legal disputes, the failed Republican attempt to repeal Obamacare, reports of White House staff infighting, historically low approval ratings, and an overall sense that his presidency was failing. In the ensuing eight months, Kelly has asserted his administrative control through a major overhaul of White House staff people and processes. One result is the unprecedented rate of turnover among Trump’s White House aides, much of it purportedly with Kelly’s blessing. According to media reports, McMaster is but the latest victim of Kelly’s purge.

In addition to the staff housecleaning, Kelly has tried to impose greater discipline over White House decisionmaking and messaging. On this score, however, he has been less successful, in part because Trump seems unwilling, or incapable, of sticking to organizational routines or exercising self-discipline. Indeed, the President bristles at any perception that Kelly is “managing” him. The result is a recurring pattern of high profile disputes between the President and his chief of staff: Trump tweets or states a controversial position or belief, Kelly walks backs or clarifies Trump’s statement, and the President responds by implicitly or publicly rebuking his chief of staff. Two months ago, for example, Kelly reportedly told legislators on Capitol Hill that Trump’s campaign statements on immigration were “uninformed,” and described the President’s views on building a border wall as “evolving.” The next morning Trump responded by tweeting “The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it.” The exchange fueled rumors that Trump would replace Kelly. However, Trump then publicly reaffirmed his support for his chief of staff.

To be sure, some of Kelly’s wounds are self-inflicted, evidence that his years in the military left him ill-prepared to address the political dimension of his job. Examples abound, such as when he accused undocumented immigrants of being too lazy to sign up for protections afforded by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and appeared to back Staff Secretary Rob Porter after accusations of abuse by Porter’s two ex-wives. As former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta remarked: “John is a great Marine . . . but he is not a politician, and one thing he lacks is the ability to look at the big political picture and understand what you should and shouldn’t say as chief of staff.”

However, the combustible relationship between Trump and Kelly is not simply a function of their personal idiosyncrasies. Barack Obama’s buttoned-down approach to the presidency was the antithesis of Trump’s in terms of impulse control and adherence to organizational routine. And yet Obama went through five chiefs during his two terms as president, including three during his first four years in office. George W. Bush is perhaps an exception to this pattern – his first chief, Andrew Card, served for six years before leaving of his own accord, and Card’s successor finished out Bush’s second term. But Bush’s predecessor Bill Clinton also had high turnover, with four chiefs across his eight years as president. Both George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan White House experienced similar rates of change.

In part this frequent turnover reflects a mismatched skill set. As Kathryn Dunn Tenpas and I show, presidents often initially choose their White House aides, including chief of staffs, from individuals who have proven their mettle on the campaign trail. However, the skills that prove so useful during campaigns tend not to translate well into the process of governing. Steve Bannon, the Trump campaign strategist who briefly reprised that function in Trump’s White House, exemplifies this tendency. After being appointed to the White House to insure that Trump’s campaign promises were fulfilled, Bannon was fired shortly after Kelly’s appointment as chief of staff. Bannon later conceded that “In many ways, I think I can be more effective fighting from the outside for the agenda President Trump ran on. ”

But while the mismatch in functions may explain White House staff turnover more generally, there is a more fundamental reason for the instability in the chief of staff’s position. As my Middlebury College colleague Amy Yuen and I demonstrate formally in our ongoing research program [gated], it is very difficult for a chief to organize the White House staff to simultaneously maximize efficiency and insure that the range of information and advice necessary for effective decisionmaking reaches the President’s desk. In the modern era, White House staffs have expanded in size and internal complexity, prompting chiefs to centralize power in order to achieve administrative efficiency. Carried too far, however, such efforts can isolate presidents from much needed input and advice. Moreover, presidents may worry that their decisionmaking authority is being usurped by their chief White House aide. This clash in expectations is what contributes to the high turnover among chiefs.

How might Kelly avoid the fate that so frequently ensnared his predecessors? It depends first and foremost on Trump properly understanding his organizational needs. The large size and internal complexity of the modern White House make it imperative to designate one individual to coordinate the flow of paper and people in and out of the Oval Office. However, this does not mean Trump should grant that individual primus inter pares status within the White House organization. Instead, as Yuen and I show, presidents gain informational advantages by allowing multiple White House power centers, and giving each equal access to the president. Ideally, this entails distributing White House staff authority across two or more political and policy advisers, and pitting them against each other in a competitive advising process, rather than placing specialists in distinct functional silos reporting separately to a dominant chief of staff. A competitive advising structure, we argue, forces policy and political disputes to the president, where they should be resolved, rather than allowing them to be settled by a chief of staff or worse, by lower-level aides.

This approach undoubtedly has costs. Most notably it requires a president who is comfortable dealing with dissent among his advisers, and who can tolerate the unavoidable negative media coverage that staff disagreements will produce, particularly when aides use the press to take on rivals and to pressure their boss to choose their side. For their part, chiefs must be willing to manage this open competition, rather than stifle it, even at the risk of creating the perception that they are not fully in charge of the White House structure. Eight months into his tenure, it is an open question whether Kelly is willing and able to manage this type of competitive advising structure. It is even less clear that his President will let him. But the fate of Trump’s presidency rests in large part on whether he, and Kelly, grasp the impact of organization on presidential success. If they cannot, Kelly’s days as chief of staff are likely numbered, and Trump will almost certainly experience a recurrence of the organizational dysfunction that has afflicted his presidency for much of his first year in office.

New publications

Robert Elgie, Political Leadership: A Pragmatic Institutionalist Approach, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Robert Elgie, ‘The election of Emmanuel Macron and the new French party system: a return to the éternel marais?’, Modern & Contemporary France, pp. 1-15, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09639489.2017.1408062.

Tapio Raunio and Thomas Sedelius, ‘Shifting Power-Centres of Semi-Presidentialism: Exploring Executive Coordination in Lithuania’, Government and Opposition, pp. 1-24, 2017 doi:10.1017/gov.2017.31.

António Costa Pinto and Paulo José Canelas Rapaz (eds.), Presidentes e (Semi)Presidencialismo nas Democracias Contemporâneas, Lisbon, ICS, 2017.

Rui Graça Feijó, ‘Perilous semi-presidentialism? On the democratic performance of Timor-Leste government system’, Contemporary Politics, Online first, available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/Ah3Y2e6RJFCwnbA4BRze/full

Special issue on Perilous Presidentialism in Southeast Asia; Guest Editors: Mark Thompson and Marco Bünte. Contemporary Politics, Papers available Online first at: http://www.tandfonline.com/action/showAxaArticles?journalCode=ccpo20.

Jung-Hsiang Tsai, ‘The Triangular Relationship between the President, Prime Minister, and Parliament in Semi-presidentialism: Analyzing Taiwan and Poland’, Soochow Journal of Political Science, Vol. 35, Iss. 2, (2017): 1-71.

Nicholas Allen, ‘Great Expectations: The Job at the Top and the People who do it’, The Political Quarterly. doi:10.1111/1467-923X.12447.

Farida Jalalzai, ‘Women Heads of State and Government’, in Amy C. Alexander, Catherine Bolzendahl and Farida Jalalzai (eds.), Measuring Women’s Political Empowerment Across the Globe, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Aidan Smith, Gender, Heteronormativity, and the American Presidency’, London: Routledge, 2018.

Special issue on Protest and Legitimacy: Emerging Dilemmas in Putin’s Third Term, Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, Volume 25, Number 3, Summer 2017.

Marcelo Camerlo and Cecilia Martínez-Gallardo (eds.), Government Formation and Minister Turnover in Presidential Cabinets: Comparative Analysis in the Americas, Routledge, 2018.

Michael Gallagher, ‘The Oireachtas: President and Parliament’, Politics in the Republic of Ireland, 6th Edition, Routledge, 2018.

João Carvalho, ‘Mainstream Party Strategies Towards Extreme Right Parties: The French 2007 and 2012 Presidential Elections’, Government and Opposition, pp. 1-22, 2017, doi:10.1017/gov.2017.25

Sidney M. Milkis and John Warren York, ‘Barack Obama, Organizing for Action, and Executive-Centered Partisanship’, Studies in American Political Development, 31(1), 1-23. doi:10.1017/S0898588X17000037.

Pål Kolstø and Helge Blakkisrud, ‘Regime Development and Patron–Client Relations: The 2016 Transnistrian Presidential Elections and the “Russia Factor”’, Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, Volume 25, Number 4, Fall 2017, pp. 503-528.

Aidan Smith – The Bully and the Backlash: Donald Trump’s Effective Use of Masculinity Politics

This is a guest post by Aidan Smith. It is based on her book, Gender, Heteronormativity, and the American Presidency, that will soon be published by Routledge.

As a scholar of gender and American presidential politics, the most recent election cycle brought increased attention to my work. Mostly in passing in the early days of 2016, friends and colleagues would ask me if  Donald Trump,  celebrity blowhard and beauty pageant entrepreneur, actually had a chance at the Oval Office. When I told them that I expected that he would win,  I was met with incredulous looks and sometimes outright disdain. How could such an obvious racist and misogynist defeat a qualified woman candidate with high name recognition? Most dismissed my prediction as a symptom of long-entrenched feminist cynicism, a set of politics that could not imagine a happy ending to Hillary Clinton’s narrative of hard-earned opportunity.  But my skepticism was borne out. When faced with the choice between an experienced female candidate with developed policy positions or a political novice  with a history of bankruptcy and explicit racist and misogynist behavior, the nation chose as its leader the person with the most unassailable normative masculine performance.

Trump’s rise, and the concurrent visibility of white nationalist rhetoric, seems a direct response to the policy decisions of the Obama administration. During the eight years of the first black president’s tenure, women, gays and lesbians, and others from marginalized communities saw their status as full citizens become more established. Each of these changes threatened the heteronormative masculine privilege so long entrenched in domestic policy. Beginning with the first piece of legislation that Obama passed, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the administration did not shy away from pushing an agenda that challenged traditional gender norms. This laundry list of policy change included the Office of Civil Rights’ work to make visible the epidemic of sexual assault on campus, the legalization of same-sex marriage, the end of the exclusion of transgender people from military service,  and the mandate that public bathrooms and other facilities be made accessible to individuals of all gender identities. Further, the Obama administration did more than challenge gender norms; it also secured greater opportunity and visibility for people of color.  Moves like support of the DREAM Act, which provides a pathway to citizenship for those who immigrated illegally as children, Obama’s comments on the Trayvon Martin case and the Black Lives Matter movement, and the decision to deny permits for the Dakota Access pipeline, which supported the indigenous protestors at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, allowed the voices of marginalized communities to became part of the fabric of the administration’s domestic policy decisions.

In 2016, Trump created a campaign that laid the groundwork for gender and racial politics long before the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape or his remarks about Megyn Kelly’s menstruation.  Trump weaponized  masculinity not just as a tool to bludgeon his general election opponent, he also deployed it against his rivals in the primaries.  The campaign began in earnest in March 2015, when Senator Ted Cruz of Texas announced his candidacy. Seventeen candidates emerged, making it the largest field for a political party in American history.  In June of that year, Trump announced his candidacy on a promise to prevent Mexican rapists from entering the country. [i]

Looking back, it’s not hard to see a rhetoric of competitive masculinity. From comparisons of whose wife was most attractive, to accusations of lagging “stamina”, candidates suffered blows intended to feminize them or make them subordinate to Trump. An exchange between Trump and Senator Marco Rubio prompted the almost unbelievable headline on CNN.com: “Donald Trump Defends Size of His Penis”[ii] How was a reality-television star billionaire from New York City able to convince working class voters from the heartland that he was the solution to their social and economic ills? By leveraging familiar tropes of masculine supremacy.

Mass media pounced on Trump’s sexist degradation of his opponents during the election season, positioning his candidacy as a threat to the body politic. Some used a term usually unheard outside of the gender studies classroom: a New York Times think piece considered “Donald Trump’s Toxic Masculinity”[iii] while The New Republic urged readers “Don’t Let Trump’s Toxic Masculinity Overshadow Hillary’s Historic Achievement.”[iv]  Yet this alleged toxicity did not poison Trump’s candidacy; instead, it served to fortify it, giving voice to an underclass that attributed its failures to the rise of others previously kept in their place by systems designed to uphold the status quo of white male supremacy. The presence of a female frontrunner set the stage for the victory of a candidate that stoked the anger of a self-perceived underclass and embodied the backlash of a portion of the electorate that felt marginalized by the rise of a set of progressive feminist policies enacted by the first African American president.

Trump’s response to the “Access Hollywood “ maelstrom reflected the long held approach to male entitlement: the remarks were merely “locker room talk,” protected and appropriate within a homosocial space away from the contaminating presence of women who would respond negatively to their objectification and potential sexual assault. This “boys will be boys” approach dovetails with long-held conservative critiques of political correctness: remarks that articulate a worldview entrenched in white male supremacy are curtailed to avoid criticism, but are generally thought to be held by everyone. Trump’s defense posits that men just don’t share these thoughts and feelings because they wish to avoid negative reactions.  He not only dismisses the remarks as trivial because they were made among men, but rejects them as peripheral to a decision about whether or not he should serve as president. “Let’s be honest, we’re living in the real world. This is nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we’re facing today,” Trump said in his videotaped apology. [v] This direct appeal implicates the audience as holding the same views about the consideration of women’s role: a voter in the “real world” (which excludes women who don’t affirm normative gender roles, or at the least marginalizes their role as full citizens) being “honest” knows that the marginalization of women is not a “real issue.” In the “real world”, women understand their natural place in the gendered hierarchy of importance, and socially constructed “political correctness” disrupts this natural hierarchy.

The Trump campaign successfully leveraged tropes of dominant masculinity to secure an electoral victory that relied on support from both male and female voters invested in traditional masculinist rhetoric anchored in white supremacy. Importantly, 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump. His victory seemingly symbolizes an American desire from both white men and women to retrieve explicitly masculine superiority over women and ethnic and gender minorities. And nothing about Trump’s style has changed. School yard taunts that surfaced in the campaign carried through to the administration, as seen in  his jibes at North Korea’s dictator (whom he called Little Rocket Man at the  U.N. General Assembly), asking “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me “old,” when I would NEVER call him “short and fat?” or through allusions to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s provision of sexual favors for campaign contributions. [vi]

Backlash to this toxic masculinity has taken over the culture wars, from the widespread condemnation across industries of serial sexual harassers to an increase in women candidates for local and national office.  Some say that these shifts are a direct reaction to Trump’s gender politics. However, Trump is simply a symptom of the illness, not the disease itself.   The president secured almost 63 million votes, from both men and women who did not find his gendered bullying disqualifying. In fact, for many it harkened back to that mythical America of yore when the nation was great, when roles were clearly defined, and women and minorities knew their place. It will take more than the cover of Time Magazine or the resignations of powerful leaders to erase the reality that Trump’s message resonated with many voters, and it’s difficult to imagine a shift in this narrative trajectory as we head into the next election cycle.

Notes

[i] “Here’s Donald Trump’s Presidential Announcement Speech,” TIME, June 16, 2015.

[ii] Gregory Krieg, “Donald Trump Defends Size of His Penis,” CNN, March 4, 2016, http://edition.cnn. com/2016/03/03/politics/donald- trump-small-hands-marco-rubio/.

[iii] Jared Yates Sexton, “Donald Trump’s Toxic Masculinity,” The New York Times, October 13, 2016.

[iv] Jeet Heer, Jeet, Don’t Let Trump’s Toxic Masculinity Overshadow Hillary’s Historic Achievement,” New Republic, October 14, 2016.

[v] “Transcript of Donald Trump’s Videotaped Apology,” The New York Times, October 8, 2016.

[vi] Twitter, @realdonaldtrump, Novcmber 11, 2017, https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/929511061954297857; Twitter: @realdonaldtrump, December 12, 2017, https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/940567812053053441

US – Trump and Republicans In An Era of Nationalized Elections: Hanging Together, or Hanging Separately?

Late last month, Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake took to the Senate floor to confirm that he would not be seeking reelection in 2018. But most of his remarks, which earned a standing ovation from his Senate colleagues, were directed at President Donald Trump. Flake castigated Trump for “reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior” that was “dangerous to democracy,” and he called on his colleagues to “stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch is normal.” Only hours before Flake’s broadside against the President, his Republican Senate colleague Bob Corker, in an appearance on NBC’s Today show, expressed similar sentiments when he branded Trump “an utterly untruthful president.” It was but the latest in a series of criticisms of Trump by the Tennessee Republican dating back several months, including Corker’s characterization of Trump’s White House as “an adult daycare center.”

In the immediate aftermath journalists were quick to label Corker and Flake’s remarks a “watershed moment”, that signaled a Republican Party on the brink of “civil war”, and they speculated that the growing party fissure would jeopardize Trump’s legislative agenda. However, while Corker’s and Flake’s attacks on their own party’s president are perhaps unprecedented, and thus newsworthy, the bigger story is just how few of their fellow partisans in Congress have followed their lead. It is easy to understand their reluctance to do so. Although many in Congress likely share Flake and Corker’s outrage regarding Trump’s norm-breaking behavior, they also recognize that in an era of ideologically polarized congressional parties and nationalized elections, their political fates depend heavily on working with Trump to achieve legislative success.

By nationalized, I mean that the electoral fortunes of Representatives and Senators are increasingly linked to constituents’ willingness to credit or blame the political parties as a whole for the state of the nation, rather than simply voting on the basis of their individual legislator’s record. Put another way, the legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous aphorism that “all politics is local” no longer holds true, at least not when it comes winning a seat in Congress. In fact, most electoral politics is now “national”. Just how nationalized have congressional elections become? One way to estimate the relative influence of national versus local forces is to regress the outcome of the House vote in any given election on the previous House vote and on the most recent presidential vote in that House district, while controlling for incumbency and district partisanship. The coefficients on the House variable serve as a proxy for local influences, and the one on the presidential variable captures national tides. Drawing on data gathered by a number of my research assistants over the years, I have been documenting the relative growth in the nationalization of House election dating back to 1954. As the chart below indicates, elections have become increasingly nationalized since the mid-1980’s, and in 2016 the House experienced the most nationalized elections yet measured for a presidential election year.

As the next chart shows, there is a similar trend in House midterm elections: an increase in nationalization dating back to the 1980’s, with 2014 showing the highest rate of nationalization to date.

Although detecting similar trends in Senate races is more difficult because there are fewer of them and because Senate cohorts are elected at different intervals, there is some evidence, such as the decline in states that split their Senate contingent between two parties, to suggest that Senate elections have become more nationalized as well. Consistent with this claim, in 2016, for the first time since the Senate was elected through a popular vote, every state that elected a Republican candidate for Senate also voted for the Republican presidential candidate, and every state that elected a Democratic Senate candidate voted for the Democratic presidential standard bearer. In short, there is no reason to believe that Senate races are any less susceptible to the forces driving nationalization.

What are those forces – why are U.S. elections increasingly nationalized? A full explanation requires a separate post, but there are likely a number of factors at play. To begin, changes in campaign finance regulations have accentuated the monetary influence of small donors who possess more ideologically-extreme views and, aided by the ease of contributing via the internet, they are increasingly willing to spend that money wherever it will have the greatest electoral impact. That often means challenging incumbents in primaries with more partisan candidates. It also appears that the marginal impact of casework and other constituency-related activities, which helped fuel the rise of the incumbency advantage during the 1960’s, may have diminished as it has become an expected part of congressional service.

However, perhaps the most important factor has been party sorting, in which party labels have become a more reliable indicator of a person’s ideological views. Among other effects, party sorting has led to a decline in split-ticket voting in national elections from its high point in the 1970’s, as indicated in the following table.

It is important to note that the decline in split-ticket voting is not proof that voters are increasingly polarized. Instead, as Morris Fiorina argues, these trends are more likely a function of the changing nature of the candidates and positions from which voters must choose. Candidates, and the issues they run on, may be better sorted ideologically by party label. If so, even if voters retain centrist views, they may increasingly sort themselves into a particular party and vote for a straight party ticket because of the more partisan-based choices in candidates and party platforms. As parties become better sorted ideologically, party labels become an increasingly useful cue for voters trying to decide how to vote in congressional elections, and members of Congress have a greater incentive to bolster their party brand.

Whatever the explanation for the trend toward nationalized elections, I see no evidence it will significantly reverse itself in the 2018 midterms. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Corker and Flake appeared to both suddenly take a principled stand against their own president: neither is running for reelection in 2018. (Corker made his decision not seek another term public in September.) Flake, as Trump was only to happy to point out, faced declining approval ratings and a difficult reelection fight. Before breaking publicly with President and announcing he would not seek reelection, Corker had been one of the first establishment Republicans to back Trump’s presidential candidacy, and reportedly had considered serving as Trump’s running mate. Similar political calculations likely influenced those other congressional Republicans, such as John McCain during the debate over repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, better known as Obamacare), who have recently broken publicly with Trump. McCain, of course, is suffering from brain cancer and is unlikely to seek reelection.

Most Republicans in Congress, however, have little incentive to challenge the head of their own party, no matter how outrageous they may view his behavior. This is particularly the case for those running for reelection in 2018. Midterm elections are always politically precarious for members of the president’s party. Since 1934 the president’s party has lost, on average, 27 House and almost four Senate seats during these elections. If those averages hold in 2018, it will be enough to cost Republicans their majorities in both chambers of Congress. Crucially, in an era of nationalized elections and ideologically well-sorted parties in which party labels serve as an increasingly important voting cue, it is not clear that individual members of Congress can easily insulate themselves from these growing national political tides. Instead, Republicans’ best option looking ahead may be to stick together and boost their party’s reputation by achieving some legislative successes. So far they have come up woefully short by this yardstick, most notably in their failure to repeal ACA. Their best remaining legislative hope before hitting the campaign trail may be tax reform – a version of which has already passed the House. As Republicans learned with the unsuccessful health care repeal effort, however, maintaining party unity in the Senate, where they possess a narrow 52-48 margin, is a more difficult task. Nonetheless, in an era of nationalized congressional elections, they have a strong electoral incentive to hang together. The alternative, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, another legendary American politician, is to find themselves hanging separately during the upcoming midterm elections.