May 5, 2019 📊 Democrats: "What we want, baby who's got it?"
Plus, how economic voting might play out in 2020, lies on Twitter and Biden's polling bounce.
Welcome! I’m G. Elliott Morris, data journalist for The Economist and blogger of polls, elections, and political science. Happy Sunday! Here’s my weekly email with links to what I’ve been reading and writing that puts the news in context with public opinion polls, political science, other data (some “big,” some small) and looks briefly at the week ahead. Let’s jump right in! Feedback? Drop me a line or just respond to this email.
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We’ve been joking about and debating the concept of electability throughout the 2020 Democratic cycle (as brief as it has been!) so far. While analysts have presented some good theories on what the idea is all about, it behooves me to look to the data for an answer, so I do so in this week’s email. Let’s also look at some data on social media and Trump’s falsehoods, Joe Biden’s polling bounce, and a study on bullshit.
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This Week's Big Question
What is electability, and who’s got it?
Most people use it as an excuse to embrace “traditional” candidates—mainly straight white men. Data paint a different picture of voter preferences for 2020.
Image: NPR; Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Seth Masket, a political scientist from the University of Denver, wrote a good bit on electability today for Pacific Standard. In his piece, which has the apt subtitle “It's important to not nominate a sure loser, but, historically, "electability" arguments have been used to discourage women and minorities from running,” Masket writes:
However, the discussion around the topic is fraught, particularly for the Democratic Party, which has defined itself in recent decades as the party that embraces and seeks inclusion and diversity. If you're going to assert that a white man is better qualified for a job (the party's nominee) by virtue of being a white man, you really need to be sure on your facts. And the facts just aren't there.
I think this is spot-on. The media narrative surrounding Elizabeth Warren, for example, has often focused on how she is “too shrill” to be electable, while Kamala Harris is charged with being at a disadvantage because of her race. While it may be true that there are disadvantages with being a woman or minority—the media coverage in question is a good example of the costs associated with being of a marginalized group—the concept seems more like a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” to use Masket’s words; if you charge someone with being unelectable, they become so, even though it’s an empty criticism.
There’s also a simplistic (perhaps overly simplistic) way to pour some cold water on the traditional idea of electability. It only takes two words: Donald Trump. Very few serious election-watchers believed in May 2015 that he would ever become president, yet tonight he will sleep in the upstairs residence of the White House.
If the traditional idea of electability is bogus, is there anything we should consider as being detrimental to candidates? Of course. And if you think Americans don’t want a woman or an African American to be their nominee, I’ve got some news for you. Though we do not have super-recent data, a 2015 Gallup poll sheds some light on the subject of what traits Americans do and do not find acceptable in their presidential candidates:
At least according to these data, the traditional concerns masked as “electability” might be overblown. Rather than being opposed to women and minorities, Americans are actually more averse to socialists and atheists. But I want more recent and more thorough data about 2020 in particular. Sadly a comparison poll does not exist. But what does? if we believe that Democrats themselves serve as good judges of who is more electable than not, we have some data to go on.
Kabir Khanna, a political methodologist who works with CBS News, conducted an experiment with a recent poll that assesses how assigning different demographic characteristics to hypothetical presidential candidates affects how much support they get from Democratic voters. When presented conjoint options, Khanna found that (a) Democrats were more willing to select a black than white candidate, (b) female candidates beat male candidates when going head-to-head, and (c) the party wants someone in their 40s or 50s, not their 60s or 70s. Here are some his results in graphical form (his piece contains even more matchups):
Primary polling from Echelon Insights also offers us a glimpse at electability (again, if you believe that Democratic voters are a good judge of which of their candidates can defeat Trump). Their numbers show that the partisans want (a) someone like Obama and (b) someone experienced:
This substantiates the second point I want to make, which is that who is truly electable among the country as a whole is probably the most generic, experienced candidate—someone who can draw from a wide base of support via minimizing polarization. You can see hints of this in Democrats placing ideological concerns near the bottom of the list in both their preference for candidates and justification for why they support the politicians they do. It’s also evident, of course, in Joe Biden’s (current) success in the primary.
So.. what is electability? Traditionally, it seems to be more a self-rationalization of racial or gender prejudice than anything else. Polling shows that the median American doesn’t much care about their candidate being male or female, black or white. They do have an aversion to some ideological positions—someone to the far-left or far-right is less likely to be an electable candidate than one in the middle—and don’t want an older candidate, all else being equal. In light of this, arguments about candidates being “unelectable” might range from being ill-informed analyses, to intellectually dishonest self-rationalizations of their own preferences, to the rare poignant readings of actual probabilistic differences in success—but we have little way of measuring that at this point in the cycle. So, really, what is electability? A big ol’ nothing-burger.
And now, the most notable stuff I read and wrote over the last week.
A thread from me on “It’s the Economy, Stupid” in 2020 (TL;DR no, it probably is not):
Ronald Brownstein (The Atlantic): The Democratic Debate Over Winning Back Trump’s Base
The long-term erosion of blue-collar whites as a share of the national vote is unmistakable and irreversible. That trend has ominous long-term implications for a GOP that is relying more heavily than ever on squeezing greater advantage from that shrinking group. But those white voters are disproportionately represented in the pivotal Rust Belt battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin (as well as in Ohio and Iowa, which have trended further away from Democrats). Democrats wouldn’t need to focus as obsessively on those states, and on courting their large working-class white populations, if they could tip some of the diverse and growing Sun Belt states where those whites are a smaller share of the vote, such as North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia, much less Texas. (Arizona, probably the top new Sun Belt target for Democrats in 2020, actually houses an elevated number of non-college-educated whites because it attracts so many white retirees.) But until Democrats can reliably flip some of those Sun Belt states, they can’t downplay the Rust Belt in presidential contests.
Steph W. Kight (Axios): America's majority minority future
Since 2010, non-Hispanic white people have become the minority in 32 more U.S. counties — for a total of 372 counties, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The trends are largely due to a rise in Hispanic and Asian immigrants as well as slightly higher birth rates among non-whites.
Next year, the entire under 18 population will be majority non-white, according to William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer and author of "Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America."
In less than a decade, the population under 30 will be majority non-white.
Nate Silver (FiveThirtyEight): Does Biden’s Polling Bounce Mean Anything?
On average between the four national polls, Biden has gained 8 percentage points. Where did he take that support from? It came from all over the place. Sanders is down 4 points, on average, as is Beto O’Rourke. Kamala Harris is down 2 points; Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar are each down 1 point.
But some other Democrats have also gained ground. Warren is up 3 points, on average, in the new national polls. So is Buttigieg, although that’s a little misleading since the previous HarrisX, Quinnipiac and CNN polls were conducted before his surge had really kicked in. In the poll that offers the most recent basis for comparison, Morning Consult, Buttigieg is actually down 1 point from last week’s edition.
Other Data and Cool Work
(The Economist): Who are the biggest bullshitters?
Canadian and American teenagers were especially likely to profess knowledge of these bogus topics, whereas the Scots and Irish were perfectly happy to admit their ignorance. In news that will shock nobody, in every country men claimed to be experts more often than women. The rich were more boastful than the poor. More surprising was the finding that immigrants were generally more likely to bluff about maths than native students were.
Political Science, Survey Research, and Other Nerdy Things
Matt Gertz and Rob Saville (MMFA): Major media outlets' Twitter accounts amplify false Trump claims on average 19 times a day
Major media outlets failed to rebut President Donald Trump's misinformation 65% of the time in their tweets about his false or misleading comments, according to a Media Matters review. That means the outlets amplified Trump's misinformation more than 400 times over the three-week period of the study -- a rate of 19 per day.
The data shows that news outlets are still failing to grapple with a major problem that media critics highlighted during the Trump transition: When journalists apply their traditional method of crafting headlines, tweets, and other social media posts to Trump, they end up passively spreading misinformation by uncritically repeating his falsehoods.
What I'm Reading and Working On
I’m working on a big piece on political polarization and social capital. I’ve been thinking for a long time about what happens to our social fiber when (a) we become more politically polarized AND (b) we start to pay more attention to politics and discuss it in venues we wouldn’t used to. I guess I’m trying to answer the question of whether America is headed toward a new Civil War—frankly, I don’t know either way yet. I’m also writing about mountaineering on Everest, a topic I guess 1-5% of you probably are interested in. Stay tuned.
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back in your inbox next Sunday. In the meantime, follow me online or reach out via email. I’d love to hear from you!
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