I’m increasingly convinced that being ahead of the curve in terms of macro-political predictions doesn’t just mean having the best datasets or paying closest attention to the polls or having the best model. If you want to see things in advance, you’ve often got to be able to re-examine commonly held axioms about how elections and politics work on a fundamental level. These re-examinations will come regardless, in time, following new polling data or actual voting results but that doesn’t mean they can’t be made earlier.
My theory of the day relates to the fundamental reasons why people vote. I’m of the view that the only sustainable long-term reasons for voting behavior are identity and ideology, and the main ideological questions that really matter during this current era are culture war ones. In essence, voting becomes a simple function of a few inputs, such as the voter’s race, stance on guns, stance on immigration, stance on racial issues, stance on LGBT issues.
When pundits say “partisanship is increasing”, it’s true if you take that to mean down-ballot elections are more and more closely resembling presidential elections. What I’d say, though, is that elections are increasingly driven by ideology – and a narrow range of ideological questions at that. This happens foremost on the Presidential level and less so once you get down to local offices, but it is taking place everywhere. Some measures of partisanship, such as voter registration, are actually increasingly decoupled from federal and statewide elections. In most of rural, white Louisiana, for example, Trump won registered Democrats by a landslide. His performance more closely mirrored previous referendums Louisiana had passed such as a vote to ban gay marriage and a vote to protect the right to bear arms,
Before we look at the data, let’s try and explain why this is. Basically, a lot of voters will pick a Democratic candidate for a given office simply because they are some combination of a) registered as a Democrat, b) identify as a Democrat or c) have voted Democrat a lot previously. This is increasingly less true, but it’s still a major predictive factor and I believe it to be on its last legs. The reasoning is pretty simple – in this age of mass media and nationalized politics where parties will consistently try and sell themselves to voters on a number of culture war issues like guns or immigration, it’s increasingly difficult for a voter who is generally liberal on these issues to vote Republican, or vice versa. This doesn’t necessarily happen overnight, either. A culturally conservative voter might’ve voted for Obama in 2012 out of party loyalty/identity and then stuck with Clinton despite some reservations for the same reason. That voter is far from a sure bet for either party in 2020.
In other words, saying a certain district or state voted for Clinton or Trump by a certain amount and will therefore vote a certain way in 2020 is, in my humble opinion, quite a backwards way to look at things. Presidential votes are mere outputs of the election function, if you try and predict the next output using the last one you’ll always be one cycle behind. The inputs – the reasons why voters vote they way they do – are where the real insight can be gleaned. For example, why is Washington guaranteed to vote for Biden this November? Not because it voted for Clinton, but because it’s a reasonably urban state that, despite being whiter than average, is highly liberal on issues such as gay marriage and abortion.
Now it’s time for some evidence, so far I’ve just been theorizing. For a moment let’s take ideological sorting out of the picture and look at the basic concept of inputs vs outputs.
If I’m right, historically speaking, when a state’s inputs are at odds with its outputs, there should be some kind of correction in subsequent elections. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a number of such occurrences. The most obvious ones are home state effects, although this idea is more commonly held. It’s not controversial to suggest that South Dakota trended right in 1976 because favorite son George McGovern was no longer on the ticket. There are other examples, however, which lack such easy explanations. Take Mississippi in 1976. With my approach, it doesn’t make much sense for it to have voted 11 points to the right of Alabama. After all, Mississippi has a higher black population, it’s only a little bit more conservative and it’s less urban (rural whites used to be the most Democratic in the South). Sure enough, in 1980, they voted exactly the same (to within 0.02%!). Or we have the example of Tennessee in 1984. Reagan won the South in a landslide that year yet, for lack of a clear reason, he did about six points worse in Tennessee than any other Southern state. Sure enough, because it was already more Democratic than its inputs would suggest, Tennessee was the only state not to move left in 1988.
If you looked at this map you could be forgiven for assuming that Republicans nominated a Tennessean in 1988, or at least that they campaigned there extensively and successfully. In reality, however, this is a state that’s out of wack realigning itself.
An example you might be more familiar with would be Indiana, in 2008. Obama pulled off an impressive win there, beating McCain out by 1% four years after Kerry had lost to Bush by 20%. This is often attributed to Obama being from neighboring Illinois and his superior ground game, but I’m not sure that’s really what’s at work here. After all, Illinois itself didn’t move left anywhere near as much as Indiana. Nor did, Ohio, a strongly contested swing state with similar demographics. What my theory suggests is that in 2004 Indiana was far more Republican than it had any right to be, and 2008 was a correction to that fact. To see whether this is true, I looked at Missouri, a state that is incredibly demographically similar to Indiana and has voted in lockstep with it since 2008. In 2004, Bush won Missouri by seven points, while winning Indiana by 20. If you’d used my theory at the time you might have wondered why Bush did so well in Indiana despite all the relevant inputs, and concluded that Democrats had a good deal of potential upside there in future elections.
Looking at historical examples on a state level is all very well and good but now it’s time to bring ideology back to the forefront of the theory and look at how that has played out in recent years. I’ve decided to focus on a single state (Maine) so that I can make apples-to-apples comparisons using referendum data. Why Maine? You may have heard a lot about it from me recently. Three main reasons; it has a wealth of useful referendum data, it’s overwhelmingly white (which allows me to essentially control for race) and it has a number of small townships which enables me to do granular analysis without going to a precinct level. A disclaimer: I could’ve done a similar analysis on a number of states and gotten very similar results, they are by no means unique to this one state.
In 2012, Obama won Maine by a landslide. With a linear regression model we can gain some insight into the factors that predicted support for him. In this case, Obama’s win was overwhelmingly a function of party registration, not ideology.
Being more liberal on certain social issues was associated with voting for Obama, notably gay marriage (associated with lack of religiosity) as well as support for Medicaid expansion and opposition to religious exemptions for vaccination requirements. At the same time, however, support for gun control (associated with pop. density) actually made voters less likely to support the President, as did having a four-year college degree. These results speak to Obama’s strength with secular, rural, white working-class voters that we saw across the Midwest and North-East in 2012. They also speak to how little of Obama’s big win in Maine was built on an ideological bedrock, making it inherently unstable.
From the above table alone, we can see two major warning signs for Democrats in Maine prior to the 2016 election. Firstly, a large number of people voted for Obama simply because they were a registered Democrat (or rather, because of the behaviors that being a registered Democrat implies). This is not a sustainable reason to vote Democrat in the long-term; voters will generally gravitate towards the party that represents them on the issues of the day and these trends are more powerful than ever thanks to mass-media and the prominence of the ‘culture war’. Secondly, the issue that drove voting behavior the most in 2012 – gay marriage – both uniquely benefits Democrats in secular Maine and is likely to fade from the public consciousness as conservatives gradually accept defeat on this issue. We know how the story goes from here; Trump does quite well in Maine and becomes the best-performing Republican there since George H.W. Bush. The next table shows the change between 2012-2016 regressed across the same variables plus the 2012 pres variable:
Interesting to note that once you account for support for Obama in 2012, every single other variable in the dataset is associated with a swing to Clinton in 2016, even party registration! This too makes sense intuitively; if we hold ideology constant then it’s entirely plausible that a Romney-voting registered Democrat has an above-average chance to flip to Clinton, maybe something about Romney or Obama as candidates appealed to them or their specific area. The results of this regression generally confirm that it’s not really about party registration, although that is one of my preferred ways of expressing (historical) partisanship. The point is that where a region votes in a way that is inconsistent with their ideology across relevant issues, they are likely to trend in that direction. Finally, let’s look at a regression of the 2016 presidential results using all the variables above (i.e. the original set plus 2012 pres):
These results show that while Clinton broadly did well with voters who were ideologically liberal, there was still a great deal of variation in the results that could only be explained by previous partisanship, either through registration or through voting Obama in 2012. In other words, although it may seem somewhat implausible, there were a lot of conservative Clinton voters and liberal Trump voters in Maine (and likely in the rest of the country too). Important to note here that I don’t mean whether or not a voter would describe themselves as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ in a poll; a flawed metric that doesn’t really capture their true ideological bent. What I’m saying is that in Northern Maine for example, there were a non-trivial number of Clinton voters who do not support gay marriage, do not support gun control and do not support medicaid expansion.
(As an aside: it’s worth noting that many of these variables come from different years i.e. party registration from 2020, gay marriage from 2012, medicaid expansion from 2017, however other research I’ve conducted suggests that this will have little overall impact on the results of my regressions.)
Let’s zoom out and look at the big picture now. What am I getting at here? Firstly, as I’ve shown, it pays to view elections (at least on the Presidential level, where most of my analysis has focused) as a function with inputs and outputs, and we must not confuse the two. Historically there have been a lot of inputs that differ from the core inputs of today (race & ideology) yet it still held true that where there was tension between those inputs and outputs, future election results would gravitate towards the former. Secondly, aside from race (there’s a lot of research to be done into how race and ideology are intertwined but we can leave that for another day), it is increasingly true that the only relevant input is ideology, specifically social issues. If this weren’t true then the first point would largely be moot as there’s no sense basing a theory of elections around these mythical ‘inputs’ if we have no idea what those inputs actually look like. This idea has been shown empirically in the difference between the 2012 and 2016 Presidential results and I believe it also makes sense intuitively. The nation has been heavily divided on social issues before (if people try and tell you that America is more divided than it’s ever been, remind them that The Civil War Happened) but the age of mass-media has enabled a nationalization of politics like we’ve never seen before. I would also argue that voters are likelier to vote based on ideology when one party tries to focus an election on that specific issue (i.e. the GOP and immigration). Just look at what happened in 1964 election, where a large number of Democrats voted for Barry Goldwater and an even larger number of Republicans voted for Lyndon Johnson on the basis of their stances on the Civil Rights Act.
Furthermore, I’m generally skeptical of claims that 2016 trends will be nonexistent or even reversed in 2020, on the basis that the underlying reasons have, if anything, gotten stronger. Ask yourself, has the GOP tried to distance itself from the Trump campaign’s messaging in 2016, or has it doubled down? You could also think about the incentives that act on the Trump campaign this time around. Trump is personally unpopular and will continue to be at least until he leaves the White House, so their best hope of winning in November is by polarizing the electorate along ideological lines and convincing culturally conservative voters that although they might not like Trump, he’s better than what the Democrats offer. This strategy also pays dividends in terms of the Electoral College/popular vote split. As for the Biden camp, they’ve signaled they want to make this election a referendum on Trump (they will clearly win if they do, the man is unpopular). How this relates to ideology as we’ve examined it here is perhaps unclear, however I do know that if the Trump campaign wants to put certain issues front-and-center, Biden will have a hard time preventing it.
The data is clear on the current trend of ideology playing a larger role in our Presidential elections and I feel reasonably confident in saying that trend will continue in November. What this will look like will ultimately depend on the specific issues that come into play (the COVID-19 pandemic is something of a wild card, for example). Broadly speaking, though, it means that Obama-Trump voter from Wisconsin who thinks illegal immigrants should be deported probably isn’t coming back to the Democratic Party.