Arnold Kling  

The Upcoming November Election

Three Inflation Regimes... Toggling Without a Switch...

Larry Sabato writes,

the main cause of Democratic distress isn't promoting liberal legislation but simply being in charge when bad things are happening to the nation's economy.

So, we have high unemployment, and the party in power is being blamed. Nothing else to see here. Move along.

This is an off-topic blog post. That is, I have no valuable expertise on the topic of elections and public opinion, which is Sabato's profession. Yet, I worry that his interpretation misses something. It ignores the insurgency that is taking place within the Republican Party, which is described by Mark Ambinder and by Angelo Codevilla. At one point in the podcast, Codevilla says something to the effect that 3/4 of Republican voters are against what Republicans have done in recent years.

I suspect, also, that when the dust settles, the Democrats will turn out to have done relatively better among the unemployed than among other voters in the November election. My guess is that the electoral damage of high unemployment will come not from economic pain per se as from the loss of credibility for those who claimed that stimulus was the answer. In the 1930's, there was plenty of high unemployment to frustrate voters, but Roosevelt had not lost credibility. Same with Reagan in 1982.

An interesting question is why Roosevelt remained popular. I would like to think that the atmosphere he created was "Give me the benefit of the doubt," as opposed to "I know best." Note how quickly he lost his grip on popular support when he over-reached with the "court-packing plan."

Also, I have been saying for a long time that the 2010 election will be the first opportunity for voters to express antagonism toward the Wall Street bailouts. In 2008, your choice was either: John McCain, who supported the bailouts; or Barack Obama, who supported the bailouts, retained Ben Bernanke, and gave Timothy Geithner a promotion.

For a politician, it may help to think in terms of a bank account. When you do something popular, you make a deposit. When you do something unpopular, your make a withdrawal.

You can claim that without the bailouts, the situation would be much worse economically. But politically, the bailouts were a big withdrawal, and they never got paid back. Neither Roosevelt nor Reagan inherited this sort of deficit of political legitimacy. President Obama and the Democrats did. They rushed to do the stimulus, cap-and-trade, and health care reform without having any political legitimacy in the bank.

To me, that is what is creating the political dynamic this fall.

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
David Ricardo writes:

"...the 2010 election will be the first opportunity for voters to express antagonism toward the Wall Street bailouts. In 2008, your choice was either: John McCain, who supported the bailouts; or Barack Obama, who supported the bailouts, retained Ben Bernanke, and gave Timothy Geithner a promotion."

Well said. Voters hated the bailouts, and they hated the idea of too big to fail. Financial reform addressed neither, and incumbents in the House and Senate will be punished.

On top of this, voters have grown tired of the arrogant elitism of its elected and appointed officials, many of whom have never managed a business nor made a payroll but are formulating misguided policies for the rest of us. A little humility would go a long way, but I don't see it coming from Obama, Geithner, et al.

Yancey Ward writes:


For someone who has "no valuable expertise on the topic of elections and public opinion", you wrote a far more accurate and insightful description of the political landscape of today than do 99% of the paid columnists and political experts.

I'm not buying the idea that voters are fundamentally reacting against the bailouts. For one, most voters don't really understand them, as there's been a lot of air blown on all sides about it. Secondly, don't you figure more voters would be angry about the GM bailout? It certainly was an industry protection gambit, and more clearly related to interest groups rather than to aiding the economy (given the nation's experience with the Great Depression, it's easier to make an argument that letting banks fail is bad, even if that argument isn't necessarily correct).

It makes more sense to assume that politics is operating in pretty much exactly the same way as it always does: people are mad because things are bad. The average voter doesn't have the time or inclination to figure out why things are bad (see Rational Ignorance), but they can feel from the general media and economic environment that something is amiss. There was a discussion on this blog recently about Carter vs Regan, and noting that Carter actually made the initial moves for deregulating oil. Surely, if the voters cared about specific policy, they should have championed that. Instead, economic conditions didn't get to improving until the Regan administration (who wisely continued the policy of deregulating oil), and he gets the credit because he was in the chair when the economy picked up.

However, we'll see come 2010 why it is people are striking against the establishment (if they do). Personally, my money is on no-brain opportunists of the vein of Sarah Palin getting most of the support from the disaffected, as they can channel the rage of the voters at non-improving conditions. But if we find that actual committed and intelligent conservatives get in, I'll definitely reassess. I would be happy to be wrong.

Felix writes:

Was it just me who noticed the yearning before the 06 election for a return to those halcyon days of the '30's, when "we" were in charge, and "we" were really, really important, and "we" could make really, really important decisions, and "we" could steer the country on a new course?

The current depression had other reasons, too, but ...

Thing is, though, the repubs seem to have responded with much of the same, "We want to be in charge because we're 'we'."

The dems talk of the "party of no", but aside from the fact that when the repubs are in charge, the dems are the "party of no", the dems have a point. It's late August and there's no "contract for America". There's no "morning in America". Nothing. Just "stop the bailouts", "stop the socialism". OK. So, the usual response to those sorts of feelings is to simply rename the bad, bad thing, throw a bone to those who come up with alternate names so they won't counter, and move on.

Oddly enough, from where I sit, it appears Econlog is in the middle of one big transformation that's required: Economics education. An interesting change that's happened in the world over the last half century is that, nowadays, a large percentage of people have a significant percentage of their resources tied up in investments. Think, pension funds and 401k's. But, currently, the control of these resources is scattered a long way from the ultimate owners. For that control to be held in the hands of the owners, the owners must have some investment savvy. Knowledge limited to "don't bail out the Wall St fat cats" won't be enough. Until that knowledge is disseminated, the Timothy and Ben's of the world will call the shots and disenfranchised people will bitch.

Hyena writes:

I think you are misreading FDR's context. What FDR presided over was many orders of magnitude worse than what Bush and Obama have contended with. Nor is our economy the same--the educational and sectoral mix is radically different and we have a social safety net we take for granted.

Media, cultural norms and the relationship between the states and Federal government are also very different. Our attitudes towards corruption have also changed dramatically. We can't make straightforward comparisons to the pre-war--or even pre-counterculture--political past because we don't share enough of our society and economy with those eras.

More than likely, the Democrats will lose in November for a fairly mechanical reason: they are overrepresented in the legislature vis-a-vis the public. They came to power through a combination of Republican exhaustion from Bush and higher turnout for Obama, neither situation will be repeated this year.

Hyena writes:

@Armchair Philosopher

I think people misunderstand the mechanism behind "times are bad, voters are mad". It doesn't encourage people to "throw the bums out", it discourages the supporters of incumbents and encourages their opponents. It biases turn-out, it doesn't really change views.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

If ever there was a time when party doesn't really matter, this is it. A lot of people, if they knew how to go about it, would start doing the government jobs that really count and simply get rid of the rest that government has no money for anyway.


That's a good point, but I'm curious as to whether or not it has an effect on the political realities of the situation. Politicians strive for election. I don't see why the manner of how they were elected would affect their eventual policies/historical reputation in office.

That said, I can definitely see why it would have an effect on the country's status. If it's a matter of disaffecting more of your opponents voters than he can do to yours, you'd figure that would lead to a pretty crumby electoral system, which matches decently with the one we have (with such low turnout).


Oops, I get it now. The Democrat loss would be a reversion to the mean, which was caused by imbalanced turnout, which is where the misunderstanding between turnout vs total voter change matters.

Still, you're left with the question of why is turnout proportionally different in 2010 than in 2008. I think you'd have to argue that the type of people who vote in midterm elections are closer to the mean of the countries voters, which doesn't inherently obvious.

It would seem to me that in an midterm election, you'd be less likely to approach the mean, given the smaller number of voters meaning each marginal voter has more electoral power. That would seem to make policies/polemics more powerful in changing voter minds, because the average mid-term voter is going to care more about politics (given that they don't need a presidential election to get them to the boot). If the policies or polemics would be more powerful, wouldn't that make the return to the mean less likely, as compared with the possibility of some kind of distortion made easier by the smaller number of voters? Or are mid-term voters the mean, distorted when you add more of the populace in?

Hyena writes:

@Armchair Philosopher

First: politics isn't about policy. Likewise, "being an independent" is more about signaling personal qualities than accurately describing political tendencies. Voters are overwhelmingly partisan. All else being not-catastrophically unequal, people will vote their party and the makeup of legislatures will reflect the party affiliations.

In 2008, the electorate massively skewed because Obama encouraged lots of people--young people, urbanites, minorities--to vote for him. This increased turnout among Democratic voters and encouraged people to put racial, ethnic and cultural loyalties ahead of party affiliation. Still, it wasn't about policy.

2010 doesn't have the Obama factor to increase Democratic turnout, so everything should revert to the mean or be slightly Republican (depending on whether "D"s or "R"s are more common lately).


That all makes sense to me, but it seems that even if people don't vote because of policies, they can be motivated because of policies, like you noted above. So people's identity with tribal factions leaks into an identity with the policies promoted by those factions. In that way, various policy outcomes can affect who's energized to come out and support their faction. If Democrats, for example, don't have their policy reflect the policies their voters identify themselves with, they might end up with less excited and less-likely-to-vote voters. This kind of voting model seems plausible to me, even conceding the predominant effect of tribal identity in politics.

MernaMoose writes:

3/4 of Republican voters are against what Republicans have done in recent years

Meanwhile, nearly 2/3 of all Americans are against what Democrats have done in recent months. That didn't stop the Democrats any more than it stopped Bush & Co.

And at any given moment, somewhere around 1/2 of all Americans are probably against 100% of everything that ever gets done.

But none of this means anything.

There are two things that do matter:

1) In our political system, the only incentive our elected leaders have is doing whatever it takes to stay in office. All else is ultimately irrelevant, for all but those with the most devout political convictions.

For more than a century around the globe, the bulk of the politically devout have been one type of socialist or another.

2) The (personally estimated) "fact" that 90% of the people who think government should as far as possible stay out of your bedroom, your bank account, and your back yard, will not go into politics or public service.

By the same token, 90% of the social engineer types will go into politics and public service.

Guess where politics and public service has to end up in the long run, no matter where you start from and no matter what set of laws you begin with?

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