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A Preference Cascade – Part II

Tuesday, 23. October 2012 16:08

As I mentioned in Part I, there is mounting evidence that the first presidential debate initiated (or at least correlated) with a preference cascade for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. First let’s look at the evidence which suggests this might very well have happened. The first presidential debate was on October 3rd, 2012. So in order to assess the debate as an inflection point, we want to look at polling on or before October 2nd on the one hand in comparison to polling on or after October 4th. With tracking polls we will want to compare polling on October 2nd with polling reported all they way out to October 10th in the case of 7-day averages. Finally, we will want to look at the current polls. Our questions: 1) Was there a Romney surge post-debate? 2) Has that surge continued/snowballed or has it receded? I have included all polls cited in the RCP average where there is at least a poll before the first debate and a poll after the first debate. Ideally, we will look at polls immediately before, immediately after, and current polling.

polling evidence of preference cascade

This table depicts the Romney deficit or surplus in support for president in polling before the debate, after the debate, and currently. The trend columns indicate the difference in Romney support between the pre-debate numbers and the post-debate numbers as well as the pre-debate numbers and the current numbers. A positive number (green) in the trend column means that Romney has gained support between the two polling periods. Note, I compare within polls so that we can observe trends irrespective of the sampling technique and likely voter screen differences between the included polls.

One fact that should be immediately apparent is that there has unquestionably been a Romney surge. No poll included above shows Obama gaining, within their poll, over the last four weeks. The best Obama does is in the Hartford/Courant and IBD/TPP polls, both of which show no change in the race. Among the polls that have a pre-debate poll and a current poll on the race, the average Romney surge is 3.7%. That’s strong evidence that Romney’s surge out of the first debate has been durable — not a bump based on favorable media coverage. Note, the media consensus over the last 3 debates (1 VP, 2 Presidential) have been that the Obama/Biden ticket “won” the debate (at least narrowly). Despite this, Romney has seen his surge in the polls stabilize. In fact, it is even better than that for Romney if we focus on the polls that have a pre-debate, post-debate, and current poll in the above table. Those five polls are here:

preference cascade evidence 2

Note that among these polls, the trend to the current polling (which has baked into it the VP and 2nd presidential debate performances) from the pre-first debate polls is larger than the trend to the polling immediately after the debate. The average gain from the pre-debate polls to the immediate post-debate polls is 4%. However, the average gain from the pre-debate polls to the current polls is 5.33%. Romney is doing better now than he was in the immediate aftermath of his unamimous first debate victory by a little less than 1.5% points — a 26% improvement on his post-debate surge. This suggests that despite two Obama/Biden “victories” in the debates, the Romney surge has, in fact, deepened. Why might this be? A big part of the story is the misunderstanding of what the first debate performance was about. Alot of the debate analysis has focused on “winning on points”…in other words, analysts have looked at the debates as a competition. If one participant “out scores” the other, then that participant won. The consensus after the first debate was that Romney won — i.e. out-performed Obama. He certainly did that, but that is not what instigated the surge towards Romney in the polls. What instigated the surge was a preference cascade – an inflection point that established Romney as a credible alternative to Obama.

What many missed in the coverage of Obama’s lead up until the first debate was the fact that, despite that lead, Obama never topped 50% in the RCP average. Let’s look at the trend here:

As you can see, most of the Obama’s lead in the RCP average was built on depressing Romney’s numbers below 47%…not on Obama getting above 50%. Only at one time in the race over the last 6 months did Obama approach 50%, and that was a consequence of the bump he recieved after the Democratic National Convention. Those numbers quickly dissapated, with Obama returning to that 47% equilibrium. In contrast, Romney’s numbers are improving even 2 weeks out from that debate performance. The answer to the puzzle lies in this observation: A majority of the voting public had already decided they did not support President Obama. What they had not decided, before the debate, was whether or not they could support Romney as an acceptable alternative. What that first debate performance accomplished for Romney wasn’t a victory on points — it wouldn’t have mattered if Obama had performed well (as he did in the second and third debates). What mattered is that Romney painted himself as a viable alternative to Obama — and that’s exactly what a majority of the electorate is looking for. And that’s why things are looking up for Romney…and very gloomy for President Obama. And it is also why the subsequent debates and debate performances have failed to slow/suspend the Romney surge.

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Fisking the Alienation Meme

Friday, 5. August 2011 13:32


Interpreting polling trends is not an easy thing to do. Understanding how they relate to the world of electoral politics is even more difficult. Some manage to offer important insights, and then we get…well… this. OK, it’s not the worst bit of political analysis I’ve ever seen, but it certainly isn’t good political analysis. I’ll explain why as we work through this…effort…at politial analysis from the National Journal’s Robert Brownstein.

In the shadow of the bitterly fought agreement to raise the federal debt ceiling, the independent voters who usually hold the balance of power in American politics are expressing astronomical levels of discontent with President Obama, Congress, and the Washington system itself.

This towering wave of alienation presages more volatility for a political system that has seen the public turn from Republicans in 2004 toward Democrats in 2006 and 2008, only to snap back toward the GOP with near-record force in 2010. Now, on several key measures, the public’s assessment of Congress is even more bleak than it was at this point in the last election cycle–even as Obama’s ratings have fallen to some of the lowest levels of his presidency, particularly among independents.

This intro paints a rather apocolyptic picture for partisans — the public (and especially independents) appear to be offering a collective “pox on both your houses” to the respective parties. Well, until you look at the actual data:

Public Approval of Congress

Wait a second…Congress’s approval has slipped from 20% to 18% since January 2011, a whole two percentage points (hint: that difference falls within the Gallup Poll margin of error) and we’re getting a story about a “towering wave” of alienation? Uh…OK. Even a 14% approval rating isn’t all that different from the norm, though certainly on the low end for congressional approval. But there are two even bigger problems:

  • Public approval for Congress is ALWAYS low. And commonly this low.
  • Congress is currently divided between the two parties, complicating partisan interpretations of approval.

  • As the Gallup article notes: “Americans’ opinions of Congress have not been very positive historically, with an average 34% approval rating since Gallup began tracking this measure in 1974.” What’s more, congressional approval has been on a steady decline since the 1970’s irrespective of factors like party control, the economy, and other exogenous events.

    Historical Trend of Congressional Approval

    Note, exempting the Black Swan event of 2001 and the subsequent temporary spike in approval ratings for everyone in the government, there is essentially an upper and lower bound to the approval of Congress…it ranges from about 40% to 20% give or take a few percentage points. But more importantly for this analysis, approval ratings for Congress have only spiked to the 40% ceiling twice since 2005, and for the most part congressional approval has settled around the floor of 20% during that period. What this tells us is that low Congressional approval ratings don’t mean much. They’re always low. And calling something a “historically low” approval rating when all it did was dip a few points is simply misleading. Yes, it is an “hisorical” low but it was already at a “historical” low and has been “historically” low for some time. Nothing to see here. Move along. Move along. What’s more, it is likely due to the fact of divided government. While voters tend to like divided government in the abstract, in practice they have little patience with gridlock. Furthermore, with both parties controlling one branch (and checking the other), it gives partisans from BOTH parties reason to disapprove of Congress…likely contributing to the ‘historically’ low approval rating. There’s little reason to let our collective imagination run away with us by suggesting we are headed towards some kind of ‘unprecedented’ political environment ripe for a major upheveal in our two party syst….

    With each party hemorrhaging public support amid political polarization and economic stagnation, the implications for 2012 are complex and unpredictable. American history lacks a true example of an election in which voters turned out large numbers of incumbents from both parties, but to some observers that no longer seems impossible amid the declining support for both Obama and congressional Republicans. And while no serious independent presidential candidate has yet emerged, the numbers show an unmistakable opening for a Ross Perot-style outsider candidate who mobilizes voters unhappy with both major parties.

    …oh well, never mind. I guess now is precisely the right time for just that. Oh, and by the way, Robert, Perot ran third to both major party candidates and didn’t win a single state’s electoral votes. The best result for an independent in 100 years, and not a single electoral vote. Anyway, let’s move on to the question of whether these “historically” low congressional approval ratings tell us much about the partisan electoral fortunes in the next election. If only we had a simillarly low congressional approval rating before an election to tell us…oh, wait…

    2007 Presidential & Congressional Approval

    As you can see, in 2008 and a few months prior to the election, Congress’s approval rating was at 19%, which was statistically indistinct from the current approval rating of 18%. And Bush’s approval rating makes Obama’s current approval look positively rosey. So…did we get some kind of third party wave in 2008 as independents lead a rush to some new Ross Perot-like figure and both parties experienced a public rejection by the electorate? Ummm…not exactly. Obama beat McCain by 6 points, and a whopping total of 1.4% of the electorate voted for all of the independent candidates running combined. And what about that congressional approval rating at a time when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress? Democrats picked up 8 seats in the Senate and 21 seats in the House. Congressional approval ratings tell you very little about a party’s electoral fortunes in the next election.

    And they are even less relevant when we have divided government. What does it mean to “approve” of Congress, from a partisan perspective, when one party controls the Senate and the other party controls the House? Note, the approval of Republicans and Democrats in Congress has been relatively flat through 2011:

    Approval of Republicans and Democrats in Congress

    Note that approval for both of the parties in Congress is much higher than approval of the institution itself. This underscores precisely why we shouldn’t be treating approval of Congress, as an institution, or even congressional parties, as if they are the same thing as approval ratings for the president (a singular, individual national leader). It is comparing apples with footballs. Presidential approval ratings, unlike congressional approval ratings, do correlate with partisan outcomes in future elections. Unlike Congress, presidents do serve as the head of their national party and approval of a president correlates strongly with approval of that president’s party. Voters identify the president with his party in a way they do not do with Congress or even the parties within Congress. Poor presidential approval ratings are almost always a leading indicator for a poor electoral showing nationally for that president’s party whether it be in an off-year or presidential year election.

    Party Identification

    This measure of party identification in the American electorate by Gallup is much more indicative of the partisan fortunes of the parties in a forthcoming election. Party identification tells us the percentage of Americans in the country choosing to identify with the parties or to not identify with the parties. Note how the spike in Republican party ID and the decline in Democratic party ID presaged the Republican landslide in the 2010 congressional elections. What do those numbers look like in 2011? While we don’t have Gallup numbers for the full year (it only being August), Michael Barone’s analysis of recent Pew data indicates that the GOP’s 2010 advantage has held steady through 2011 with no signficant errosion apparent in the data.

    So, to wrap it up:

  • Congress’s approval rating, while “historically low,” has only slightly declined from January of this year and is wholly within the margin of error.
  • Congress’s approval rating is almost always low, and has been lower in recent years despite major partisan changes in control of Congress.
  • Congressional approval ratings, even when one party controls both branches, are not an indicator of partisan fortunes in a forthcoming election.
  • Party identification seems to have remained stable throughout 2011.
  • Presidential approval ratings are a very good indicator of that president’s electoral fortunes and his party’s electoral fortunes
  • Current polling does NOT suggest an opening for an independent-lead third party movement in 2012. Rather it indicates Democrats will likely suffer losses simillar to those suffered by Republicans in 2008.
  • Of course, much can change between now and then. But that’s what the data suggests at the moment. To Mr. Brownstein’s credit, he does go on to cite the political scientist Gary Jacobson, who points out that it is very unlikely to see a rejection of both parties and the rise of a successful independent party in 2012. However it is clear from Brownstein’s article that he credits the MacKinnon argument that the election will be ripe for an independent challenger. And that argument is bad. Sure, there will be independent candidates. And if you’re going to take the over or the under of 1.4% for independent candidates in the 2012 election, I’d take the under. So to answer the questions Brownstein poses in his article:

    These findings raise three intertwined questions for 2012. The first is whether this broad and corrosive discontent could encourage a third-party independent presidential candidacy.

    Not likely. There will be independent candidates. None of them are likely to gain traction. This will be, as usual, a competition between the incumbent party defending their record against the challenge to that record from the out party candidate.

    The second big question posed by this alienation is whether it could simultaneously threaten all incumbents, perhaps overturning the Republican majority in the House, the Democratic majority in the Senate, and Obama’s hold on the Oval Office.

    Absolutely not. This is patently ridiculous. You might as well ask whether the Grey Aliens from the planet Alpha Centuari are going to cause independents to give Ralph Nader the presidency. It’s that nonsensical. Brownstein has badly misinterpreted what congressional approval ratings tell us about elections. Answer: not much. Amazingly he quotes Gary Jacobson essentially telling him the same thing, and he quotes Jacobson pointing out the same thing I do (presidential approval is the indicator)…and he still poses this as a question as if it hasn’t already been defintatively answered. Uh, Robert, yeah. It has. Gary just did it for you. Pay! Attention! This is not a question to be answered. It is a question that has been answered.

    That whiplash pattern points to the third, and possibly most important, conclusion from the dismal polling numbers confronting all sides in Washington: the extent to which both parties have failed to secure enough support from independents to sustain a lasting advantage over the other.

    Now here he has a better point. I think it is certainly an open question whether or not we’ve left the generational realignments behind permanently or whether we are in a brief period of partisan equality before the realigment trends re-emerge. It’s a legitimate question. And Brownstein is right to note that political polarization may play a factor in preventing lasting realignments from restablishing themselves on a generational basis. But the congressional approval ratings are not a good measure with which to assess that question or any electoral question. The numbers indicate that 2012 is likely to be a bad year for Democrats, all things being equal at the moment. And this talk of “alienation” is simply a waste of time and bad political analysis.

    Oh, snap! D.GOOCH

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    Should we celebrate OBL’s death?

    Tuesday, 3. May 2011 12:59

    That question has been raised in the wake of the spontaneous celebration that occured in response to OBL’s demise. I certainly understand those of faith who hesitate to cheer the end of any life, and I understand those who are uneasy with the ‘party’ atmosphere that emereged on Sunday.

    But I celebrate.

    I celebrate the end to his reign of destruction.

    I celebrate the justice obtained for his innocent victims.

    I celebrate the unparalleled courage of our military forces.

    I celebrate the awesome skill Seal Team 6 displayed in taking OBL down.

    I celebrate the fact they gave him an opportunity to surrender.

    I celebrate the fact they minimized civilian casulties and collateral damage.

    I celebrate Presidents Bush and Obama for their dogged pursuit of this monster.

    I celebrate the intelligence personel who worked for years, unheraled, to bring him down.

    I celebrate the countless innocents, Muslim and Christian, who will now not be victims of his murderous terrorism.

    I celebrate the untold number of young pople who won’t be poisoned by his evil ideology.

    I celebrate the fact OBL had to face his Maker and account for his actions in this life on Sunday.

    I celebrate. D.GOOCH

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    SOTU Live Blog!!

    Tuesday, 25. January 2011 15:36

    Your one-stop shopping for all things State of the Union! I’ll be covering some of the initial coverage here as well as giving my reactions during the speech and the Republican response.

    Is the SOTU address meaningless?

    SOTU address preview.

    In the wake of last year’s challenge to the court issued by Obama in his SOTU on the Citizens United case, will the Supremes show up tonight?

    Tim Carney suggests the theme for tonight is “National Greatness liberalism.”

    8:11pm – Ok, we’ve got all the traditional stuff out of the way (the shaking of hands, the introductions, etc.). And no surprise that President Obama starts off with recognition of Gabby Giffords, the congresswoman from Arizona shot in the tragedy of Tuscon.

    8:13pm – Obama suggests that the Tuscon shooting reminds us that we are all part of the same country and suggests the true test isn’t whether we can sit together tonight (a chance for this SOTU, in the wake of Tuscon, is that R’s and D’s are sitting together rather than seperately as is custom) but rather whether we can “work together” tomorrow. Clearly a call for bipartisanship.

    8:16pm – The “things are getting better” part of the speech…cites the stock market. But notes that jobs have lagged behind. Calls for work on jobs. Touts the tax cut extension from the Lame Duck session in December.

    8:20pm – Definately hitting an optimistic tone here with the cheerleading of America’s economic leadership and small ‘d’ democratic leadership. This is what Carney was talking about.

    8:25pm – Clear liberal argument here – we have government ‘investment’ in research in education to thank for new innovation that kept us competitive. Draws an analogy between the challenge of Sputnik (the Soviet satellite that beat America into space) and suggests that we must invest in “clean energy technology.” I’m not really buying it. Even with substantial government subsidies, the ‘green jobs’ that were supposed to materalize mostly haven’t.

    8:27pm – You can’t force green energy technologies to be competitive…even if you subsidize them. If they don’t scale up (see solar, wind) or if they are impractical or overly expensive (electric cars), the market simply won’t favor those alternatives. Setting artifical goals won’t do anything other than waste money.

    8:28pm – OK, now we’re on to education. He notes that we’ve fallen behind on some international measures of education abilities. Lecturing parents on emphasizing education…OK. But doesn’t give anything concrete on how you’re going to change this.

    8:30pm – Talking about the “race to the top” program…I’m not really clear on what it does. Any call for new spending necessarily runs up against the fact that education spending has massively increased over the last few decades while scores have fallen. So is it a lack of funding that’s the problem?

    8:33pm – He touts educational successes and calls for more good teachers…but again vague on what specific policy he is going to implement to encourage/ produce this result.

    8:34pm – Defends and celebrates the decision by Dems to eliminate private student loans to go to college. Only Dems applaud this.

    8:36pm – First real partisan issue, Obama argues in favor of immigration and calls for a bill to deal with “undocumented workers”…this is the amnesty bill. I suppose he has to make this point, but there’s no way amensty goes anywhere in the House.

    8:38pm – Free internet, more railroads. Oh, and here comes the infrastructure argument. The first two are longtime liberal positions that haven’t gotten much traction. The infrastructure argument has been around every since the bridge collapse in Minnesota. Ah, first joke: the TSA patdown. Ha.

    8:41pm – SOTU’s are too long.

    8:41pm – A call to simplify the tax code and lower the corporate tax rate. Now there’s a ‘reach across the asile’ proposal and is along the lines of the 1986 tax code reform. A sucessful bill there could really help Obama’s reelection campaign.

    8:43pm – Just a line on the free trade agreements. Clearly not a priority. Still, the nod in their direction is a good sign for the free-trade folks.

    8:44pm – This is the “everything I passed in the last 2 years was great!” part of the speech. The financial regulation legislation, and, of course, Obamacare.

    8:45pm – Obama comes out in favor of eliminating the ‘book keeping burden’ that R’s tried to pass last year…certainly a point of bipartisanship that will likely get passed. Obama says he isn’t willing to go back on the precondition part of Obamacare…but then Reps haven’t exactly come out and called for that.

    8:46pm – This is going to be a real test for Obama. One of the advantages Clinton had in 94-96 was that his health care bill failed…he didn’t have to keep arguing over it. As is evident here, Obama is going to have to continue defending Obamacare and as such it will certainly be an issue in 2012.

    8:47pm – Here is the “debt problem” part. Obama acknowledges it exists, he proposes a freeze of annual domestic spending. Not clear exactly on the specifics…though Obama did mention cutting spending in “community action programs” and military spending.

    8:49pm – But Obama wants more spending on ‘education’ (though he calls it investment)…definately a point he’s going to class with Reps over.

    8:50pm -His argument that Obamacare cuts Medicare and Medicaid is simply questionable. When you spend a ton more an health spending elsewhere by cutting a little out of the programs, you aren’t doing anything to bend the cost curve or cut spending on health care.

    8:52pm – Calls for social security reform but asserts we can’t cut benefits and makes no mention of raising the retirement age, two reccomendations of the Debt Commission.

    8:53pm – Call for ‘cutting fat’ and inefficiency out of the government. Always a popular idea (see Al Gore’s efforts in the 1990’s)…but the devil’s in the details. Still, a reorganization that actually cuts departments and makes the government more efficient will get significant Republican support. The question is whether Obama is serious abour real cuts and a real reorganization that slims the government. Time will tell.

    8:56pm – Promises to veto bills with earmarks. Interesting, since the Dems have been very adamant about retaining these…even some Republicans have supported them.

    8:57pm – Sure are a long way into the speech before he hit foreign policy. So far the tone is cheerleading, suggesting we’ve ‘restored’ our standing in the world and taking credit for ‘success’ in Iraq.

    8:58pm – Strikes an optimistic tone on Afghanistan. Characterizing the war in Afghanistan as a continuation on the war on terror, though he doesn’t use that phrase.

    9:00pm – Promises to bring the troops home in July…again with this deadline stuff. All indications are that we won’t be ‘bringing the troops home’ any time soon.

    9:01pm – A bit of ra-ra on the START treaty.

    9:02pm – Two sentences on Iran and North Korea. Not exactly a big priority here.

    9:04pm – These next two paragraphs are reminiscient of George W. Bush’s SOTU’s…an emphasis on promoting freedom internationally (South Sudan, Tunisia).

    9:07pm – Another bit of ra-ra, this time on the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But at the same time Obama levels a challenge to universities to permit ROTC on campus, something many liberal college campuses had forbidden ostensibly on the basis of the DADT policy.

    9:08pm – Ah, now this is a neat part of the speech. A veiled hit on China, pointing out that our democracy, while messy, is preferable to nations where the central government can simply order something to be done. I wonder what Tom Freidman (a columnist who has often admired China for its ability to simply order things to be done) thinks about this. Ha.

    9:09pm – Awwww, very nice. A couple of lines praising the new speaker and his rise from humble beginings “the kid from Scranton.” Positively Clintonian (in a good way).

    9:11pm – Tells the story on how Americans helped with the rescue of the miners who were trapped for months. It was a “small company” that does “big things.” This is the theme for the later part of the speech. Doing “big things.” Again, the “national greatness” theme.

    9:12pm The last line: “The idea of America endures. Our destiny remains our choice. And tonight, more than two centuries later, it is because of our people that our future is hopeful, our journey goes forward, and the state of our union is strong.” Certainly strikes an optimistic and forward-thinking tone.

    Well, it was a pretty good speech as SOTU speeches go. Wasn’t as combatitive as the last SOTU as I recall, and it certainly had several tangible incidents of reaching out for bipartisanship. I think several of these items have a good chance of being passed in this Congress.

    Next, the Republican Response.

    Just an initial note on these responses, I’ve never thought they were a good thing, politically, for the opposition party. There’s no way to compete with the prestige of the president and the pomp and circumstance of the SOTU, especially with all the applause. The closest thing I’ve seen to getting close to that was last year when the new Republican governor from Virginia spoke from the well of the Virginia assembly (and had legislators there to applaud). This year’s response will be given by Paul Ryan, a member of the House…so we’re back to the closed room with no one else…the response-giver speaking to the camera. A stark contrast to the SOTU, no matter what the specifics or content of the response. Bad politics, IMHO.

    9:25pm Ryan starts out acknowledging Gabby Giffords and expresses sympathy. Again, he’s in an empty room. I just think the ambience is a real political negative no matter what the content.

    9:26pm Ryan says Reps want to work with Obama to cut spending and touts the House’s start on cutting and makes the argument that cuts are imperitive given the looming threat of crushing national debut.

    9:29pm Ryan is spending most of his response laying out the case for a spending crisis and size of government crisis and the necessity for significant cuts in government spending through big budget cuts.

    9:32pm Distinguishes Reps from Dems, labels Dems as tax and spenders and the consequences of that – record deficits and debts.

    9:33pm Real contrast between the doom and gloom of Ryan’s case and the optimistic tone of Obama’s speech. However, while Obama had an optimistic tone, he also emphasized alot of problems…though most of those problems seemed to have a ‘more spending’ solution…though he didn’t say it specifically.

    9:34pm Ryan’s argument is distinctly ideological. His limited government argument is right out of the conservative manifesto (if there is such a thing).

    9:35pm Noticably absent: any mention of foreign policy or social issues.

    9:36pm Ryan does hit a note of American greatness there at the end…but spent most of his talk arguing we’re on a train track that’s headed for a cliff. Not bad as responses go, but, again, the contrast in pomp and circumstance is evident.

    Well, that’s it folks. Hope you enjoyed the SOTU coverage here at PoliSciPundit.

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