Monday, May 08, 2017

Is British Columbia Headed in the Direction of Washington, Oregon and California?

The closing polls in the BC election suggest a close race perhaps trending in the direction of the incumbent BC Liberals, despite the name really small 'c' conservatives. However, it is clearly too close to call.

My seat estimate, which is based on riding boundaries that are out of date, suggests the NDP could finish a couple of seats ahead but one absolutely cannot tell. In the past many Green voters have switched to the NDP at the end of the campaign although so far there is no indication of that this time. If anything the strength of the Greens in this election (they are up from 8% last time to around 20%) may reflect in part that it has become a 'safe' alternative for some disaffected Liberals who are unhappy but want nothing to do with the 'dreaded socialists' (although the Green platform is clearly closer to the NDP than the Liberals).

In the 2013 election the BC Liberals won a comfortable majority of seats while winning the popular vote by just over four percentage points. I have done some poll averaging that suggests how tight it is this time:


British Columbia is a difficult place to poll because it is so diverse, ethnically and geographically. You can see from a map of the 2013 election that overall the NDP is stronger on the coast (as are the Greens) while the Liberals hold sway inland.




But what of the longer run? The small 'c' conservative coalition (originally as a Conservative-Liberal coalition, then Social Credit, and more recently BC Liberal) has dominated BC politics on all save three occasions since World War II. But can it sustain itself over time?

If we look south we a similar geographic pattern overall where the Democrats in blue generally dominate along the U.S. Pacific coast in elections to the U.S. House of Representatives (and Presidential, Senate and Governors races) while Republican strength in red is concentrated inland.


The west coast jurisdictions in the two countries have several key differences. However, one that is important is simply that B.C. extends further inland (its easternmost tip borders on Montana). The Pacific coast in both countries is where the large urban areas of Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego are located and all lean left of centre.  Support for conservative parties in both places is stronger in rural (whether agricultural or resource-based) communities.

The blue state-red state trend in the U.S. is of relatively recent vintage (until the mid-nineties Republicans were strong in California), but the trend to more left of centre views (and growing green consciousness) is clearly characteristic of the coasts in both places. Can it be too many more years before the trends evident south of the border become typical of B.C.?



Friday, May 05, 2017

Clarence Lyle Barber

One hundred years ago today my father, Clarence Barber, was born on a farm near Wolseley Saskatchewan. His father was a farmer who sent milk to Regina, paying my father as a child to milk the cows. However, his mother had been a school teacher who highly valued education.

Clarence Barber
My dad was the second of four sons, three of whom would receive a PhD. In his early years he attended a one room school house, and loved to tell the story of being called on to give an answer in the late morning, but only after he had put on his skates to play hockey during the lunch hour.

He entered the University of Saskatchewan in 1937 three years after graduating from high school (the depression prevented him from starting sooner). By 1943 he had degrees from the University of Saskatchewan (1939), Clark University in Massachusetts (an MA in 1941) and had completed his course work for a PhD at the University of Minnesota (received in 1951).

At the conclusion of a summer course at the University of Chicago during his doctoral studies, the course professor, Frank Knight, handed him a copy of John Maynard Keynes' General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Although trained to that point by Chicago school free market economists, my father, as a result of this encounter, became a life-long Keynesian with an ongoing interest in seeking practical solutions to the economic difficulties facing ordinary people.

After two years in the RCAF he left the air force early in 1945 to participate in the preliminary work at the then Dominion Bureau of Statistics that would lead to the postwar creation of Canada's national accounts.

By 1949 he was established as a professor of economics at the University of Manitoba, where he would remain until his retirement in 1983. However, he worked for one year each at the Queen's (1954-55), McGill (1964-65) and the University of the Philippines while serving as an advisor with the United Nations in Manila in 1959-60.

His very accomplished career had some real high points:
  • He published a seminal article titled simply Canadian Tariff Policy in 1955 that articulated for the first time the theory of "effective protection" provided by the tariff.
  • He served as Director of Research for the Manitoba Commission on Flood Cost-Benefit from 1957 to 1959. Without his pioneering work in cost- benefit analysis, the Red River Floodway around Winnipeg might not have been built. 
  • He served as President of the Canadian Association of University Teachers in 1958-59, at a time when it was dealing the academic freedom scandal at United College in Winnipeg arising from the dismissal of Harry Crowe.  
  • In 1966 he was appointed by the Government of Canada as the only member of the Royal Commission on Farm Machinery, delivering its final report in 1970. 
  • In 1972-73 he served as President of the Canadian Economics Association.
  • In 1977 he was elected to the Royal Society of Canada. 
  • From 1982 to 1985 he was a member of the Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada. 
  • In 1987, he was appointed to the Order of Canada and to the Order of Manitoba in 2001.
His personal side was captured well in the Lives Lived column written by my brother Dave and published in the Globe and Mail in the summer of 2004 following his death at age 86 the previous February 27.
But it wasn't always hard work. In the early 1960s, he built a summer cottage on an island in the Lake of the Woods where he would spend the summers reading and relaxing. He loved to build and fix things: tables, a toy castle, a boat. My brothers and I joked that dad's handiwork was evident when we discovered some broken object that he had pasted back together in some ingenious manner.
Most importantly, he bestowed upon me and my brothers a profound sense of fairness, critical thinking, and acceptance of others. His favourite phrase was, "Where's your evidence?" Always sticking up for the underdog in defending an alternative viewpoint, he loved to debate issues of the day at the dinner table. At the height of Brian Mulroney's problems, I declared: "You know, dad, nobody likes Brian Mulroney." He replied emphatically, "In certain parts of Quebec, they do."  
A world traveler, he took my mother (affectionately known as "Babs"), me and my three brothers all around the world (with stops in the Philippines, Japan and London) when we were just kids. All this travelling exposed us to other cultures at a very young age - that was important. And he passed on to all of us a deep love of music; his record collection included everyone from Miles Davis to Ravi Shankar, Miriam Makeba and Glenn Gould. 
During the cold prairie winters he loved to ski and curl. But eventually Babs persuaded him to retire to a warmer climate in 1985 in Victoria, B.C. He developed a love of gardening, walking, and creating lists of the top 10 books he had read in that past year. Incredibly well-read, his lists reflected a huge curiosity about the world around him. He would often send these out at Christmas time as recommendations to friends. I marveled at the huge diversity of subjects on these lists. My dad championed the values of compassion, fairness and equality. Underlying his life and career was a deep thoughtfulness and kindness to others. If the measure of a man is whether he has made a difference in other's lives then my dad succeeded gloriously. 
There is nothing more for me to say except that we all still miss him.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Trudeau and electoral reform

This week Justin Trudeau killed the prospect of significant electoral reform in this Parliament. His argument that there isn't a consensus may be true. However, he is rightly getting flack from left and right because his original promise in June 2015 was unequivocal - he pledged that 2015 would be last election to be run under the first-past-the-post system.



It is playing out as one might expect. My guess is that the Liberal calculus is correct: electoral reform is not really a top of mind, critical voting consideration for most of the electorate. However, whenever you promise something in language that strong and then don't keep it, there will inevitably be damage to your trustworthiness. Remember Trudeau senior's problems with "Zap you're frozen!". He lost the next election.

The real winners here are the Conservatives who get to keep the system we now have, which they feel they can exploit by splitting the votes of other parties. They successfully seduced the NDP into supporting a referendum within the House of Commons' electoral reform committee, not a smart move on the NDP's part. The record of referendum results in Canada suggests default support in such votes is for the status quo. One expert testifying before the Electoral Reform Committee said: "The majority of people who came to the polls who knew nothing about it essentially voted against it. I think the Evidence, certainly from Ontario, suggests that the large majority who come to these referendums really know nothing about the substantive details of the issue." (See report, footnote 100 on page 32)

The referendum is not a good way in seeking change. In the current circumstances, the NDP has been strongly asserting that there is a consensus and strong popular support for the idea of proportional representation. I am skeptical of that claim; I suspect most of the electorate has no clear set of feelings on the subject. Had there been a referendum the majority may well have opted to keep first-past-the-post.

If the NDP had offered to support Trudeau's initial inclination for preferential voting the Liberals might still have cancelled electoral reform, but it would have been politically more difficult. From the perspective of those advocating greater changes such as proportional representation, any change in the electoral system, in my view, would have broken the ice in public consciousness on the issue and created the potential for further change.

There are still two future possibilities for electoral reform. The issue has been bubbling away at the provincial as well as the federal level. The BC NDP has promised to hold a referendum on proportional representation in time to implement the change before the subsequent provincial election, if they are elected in the upcoming provincial election on May 9 of this year. If they are successful, reform at the provincial order of government could have a powerful demonstration effect (remember how medicare got its start). BC has already conducted two referendums on electoral reform, one did have a majority in favour but nothing happened because the government set sixty percent as the benchmark for moving forward, and the other had a majority against.

The other possibility of future action is pressure from the NDP after the next election on a future minority Liberal government. At the moment such a prospect is simply in the realm of speculation. For all the talk of democratic reform and the appointment of a new minister, it is clear little will happen between now and the next election. However, compared to 10 years ago there has been considerable growth in support for electoral reform and proportional representation. The activist base supporting it is now much larger. It would be unwise to think its moment has passed forever.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Straws in the wind... say Hillary will win

The U.S. election is tomorrow. While most of us who are compulsively interested in the subject (and hope Trump loses) are carefully watching the forecasting sites such as 538, there are some straws in the wind that I think point to where this thing is headed.  Most polling in the state of Nevada has been pointing to a close race. If not too close to call, many forecasting sites recently have had it leaning Republican, at least until the generally acknowledged Nevada politics expert Jon Ralston declared that heavy early voting results pointed to a Democratic win.  Here is his latest projection:

"I’d guess that right now, based on history and my sources:

  • Trump is down by at least 40,000 votes.
  • About 770,000 votes have been cast, likely two-thirds of the vote.
  • Let’s suppose that there is an Election Day turnout of 450,000 voters. Trump would probably need to win Tuesday by about 10 points to win. 
  • This is almost impossible, unless the Democrats decide not to turn out voters on Election Day."

A key part of this was a big increase in Latino turnout. This surge in Hispanic voting has also happened in Florida and nationally.  Early voting numbers in Florida (including a big increase from Hispanic voters) have led Republican consultant and TV talking head Mike Murphy (who also helped Mike Harris get elected in Ontario in the early nineties) to predict on Twitter two days before the election:
"My big prediction: I think she'll win FL quickly; will be clear in early numbers. Then cable news will do a huge 180 on 'long night'."
Consider also this Washington Post profile of the campaign in highly conservative El Paso County (Colorado Springs is the major centre here and Mitt Romney took 59% of the vote in 2012):

"Democrats do not dream of winning the county, but they have played to cut into the red advantage. The field office that [Democratic canvasser Lynn] Young visited was one of four in the county and one of 30 opened for the campaign’s final stretch — on top of the 32 offices set up months earlier. According to the campaign, 1,000 volunteers have crossed the county and made 8,000 voter contacts; since April, volunteers have knocked on 400,000 doors. In the waning days, the campaign was sending out waves of canvassers from each site.

The Republicans’ campaign was harder to calculate or to see. On Saturday morning, the El Paso County Republican Party office — the only one — was bustling with people working the phone banks who made their calls in front of a flat-screen TV tuned to the Fox News Channel. One volunteer took a break from working the phones to talk about the success she was having making converts on Facebook; another, not far away, whispered loudly that voting machine software is owned by billionaire liberal philanthropist George Soros. (It is not.)"

For me the conclusion is that despite Trump gains among white voters, which should be visible in smaller Democratic margins in some northern states with considerable proportions of non-college educated white voters, overall he is being out-organized and out hustled on the ground by the Clinton campaign.  I think the final map will look like this:



If there is an error my guess is that there would be a surprise Democratic upset in Arizona due to heavy Hispanic turnout.  Demographics will inevitably make Arizona Democratic within fifteen years if not sooner.

I think the Clinton campaign has every reason to be as upbeat as this closing campaign ad:



Update at 10:22: Turns out veteran forecaster Larry Sabato is making the same forecast. I saw him just now on MSNBC but his website is not updated yet.

Friday, July 08, 2016

What role has the U.S. media played in the rise of Donald Trump?

The role of the media in the rise of Donald Trump has been the topic of a fair bit discussion on political web pages. Rarely, however, is the actual impact of the media on politics subject to serious analysis. Helping fill the gap is a new study from Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. It recently released a study of media coverage of the pre-primary period in the current presidential election campaign on the part of major media outlets including broadcast networks NBC, CBS and FOX as well as the newspapers the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post. CNN is a notable omission from this list.

The findings, to say the least, are striking. It is important first to understand that a media tilt one way or another can have a paradoxical impact on political choices. There is no one-to-one relationship where favourable media coverage and attitudes (or the reverse) necessarily creates the expected consequential impact. However, it remains true that the media can profoundly influence beliefs in some circumstances in what seems to be the obvious way.

The Shorenstein study deserves to be taken seriously. It justifies its focus on the pre-primary period on the grounds that political success prior to the primaries is "the best predictor of which candidate will win the presidential nomination", better than Iowa and New Hampshire.

It employed a careful methodology that I have quoted in detail at the bottom of this post.

There was no more important finding than the following: "during the year 2015, major news outlets covered Donald Trump in a way that was unusual given his low initial polling numbers—a high volume of media coverage preceded Trump’s rise in the polls. Trump’s coverage was positive in tone—he received far more “good press” than “bad press.” The volume and tone of the coverage helped propel Trump to the top of Republican polls."

Moreover the media, essentially seduced by the carnival barker character of Trump's news value, could not look away, and helped enable his success:
"So what explains the news media’s early fascination with Trump? The answer is that journalists were behaving in their normal way. Although journalists play a political brokering role in presidential primaries, their decisions are driven by news values rather than political values.  Journalists are attracted to the new, the unusual, the sensational—the type of story material that will catch and hold an audience’s attention. Trump fit that need as no other candidate in recent memory. Trump is arguably the first bona fide media-created presidential nominee. Although he subsequently tapped a political nerve, journalists fueled his launch."
The free media was worth millions to Trump. A graphic from the study:

Source: Media Tenor. Based on amount of positive and neutral news coverage in eight news outlets—CBS, Fox, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post— for the period January 1-December 31, 2015.

So the media was pro-Trump but what of Hillary Clinton. The media tended to ignore the Democratic race because at first it simply assumed Hillary Clinton was going to win the nomination. Nevertheless, they still had some things to say:
"For her part, Clinton might have wished that the Democratic race received even less attention than it did, given that her coverage was the least favorable of the leading contenders, Democratic and Republican. Month after month (see figure below)... her coverage was more negative than positive. There was only one month in the whole of 2015 where the tone of her coverage was not in the red and, even then, it barely touched positive territory. During the first half of the year, excluding neutral references, it averaged three to one negative statements over positive statements. Her coverage in the second half of the year was more favorable, but still damning. The ratio for that period was more than three to two negative over positive.... 
Whereas media coverage helped build up Trump, it helped tear down Clinton. Trump’s positive coverage was the equivalent of millions of dollars in ad-buys in his favor, whereas Clinton’s negative coverage can be equated to millions of dollars in attack ads, with her on the receiving end. 
Source: Media Tenor, January 1-December 31, 2015.

Not surprisingly, the media at first ignored Bernie Sanders. However, the Sanders campaign, somewhat like Howard Dean's endless summer anti-war effort in 2003, was able to generate enormous crowds at events that did get his message out. His followers then donated millions of dollars online, making him impossible to ignore. And then the media started to cover him:
"Strictly in terms of tonal balance—good news vs. bad news—Sanders was the most favorably reported candidate—Republican or Democratic—during the invisible primary....
Sanders’ issue positions also netted him positive coverage. Although they accounted for only about 7 percent of his coverage, they were a source of “good news.” News statements about Sanders’ stands on income inequality, the minimum wage, student debt, and trade agreements were more than three-to-one positive over negative.... That ratio far exceeded those of other top candidates, Republican or Democratic....
Sanders’ media coverage during the pre-primary period was a sore spot with his followers, who complained the media was biased against his candidacy. In relative terms at least, their complaint lacks substance. Among candidates in recent decades who entered the campaign with no money, no organization, and no national following, Sanders fared better than nearly all of them. Sanders’ initial low poll numbers marked him as less newsworthy than Clinton but, as he gained strength, the news tilted in his favor."
Despite negative coverage for Clinton and positive coverage for her opponents she has both defeated Sanders in the race for the Democratic nomination, and leads Trump by 5 to 6 points in the national polling averages. Polling wizard Nate Silver currently gives her a 77% chance of winning in November.

There is more to politics than favourable media coverage, much more. Clinton's poll numbers tell us that we are seeing what appears to be a paradoxical outcome from a year-long process that in the end has defied the direction of media coverage. Clinton's strength derives from multiple sources including longstanding relationships, which I won't to into here. However, we should not forget that mass media can be better at telling the public what to think about, than what to think. This whole area is much more complex than is generally assumed.

The study has received little attention. One would not expect mass media to place too much emphasis on studies documenting their failures, but the Shorenstein effort deserved more attention than it has received. I do think Shorenstein made a mistake when they incorporated Fox News and excluded CNN.  Fox isn't really a news organization per se. It is likely it made the results more anti-Clinton and pro-Trump than otherwise. However, I doubt it would have changed the balance of the overall findings.

A major story in the news this week has been coverage of the fact that Hillary Clinton will not face criminal prosecution for her handling of emails as Secretary of State. The build-up to this conclusion has meant nonetheless plenty of negative coverage for her (including during the period of the Shorenstein study).

There is a legitimate question here about media coverage: "Was this conclusion that no charges were justified easily predictable?" One the best analysts of issues of this kind is Josh Marshall of the widely-read blog Talking Points Memo. After the FBI made its announcement he penned an analysis that argued:
"What is most notable about this news from a political and news perspective is that this outcome was entirely predictable, indeed almost inevitable, based on the facts that were publicly known about the case.
Let me say that again. There was always the chance that there were dramatically different or new facts the FBI had that had never been made public or intimated in any way. Possible but extremely unlikely. Given what we knew, criminal charges weren't even in the realm of reasonable consideration. You could find this out with just a little bit of reporting, speaking to former federal prosecutors, legal experts, really anyone knowledgable about the relevant law and past practice."

So how was it that the media missed this?  I think the there is a persistent media bias I like to call the "good story bias". Essentially the media always want a good story. That influences them in many ways including how they treat any case that potentially affects the possibility that a political figure has committed a crime, major or minor. They want to believe it is true because it is a much better story than "nothing to see here folks". But if they are seriously committed to the truth, they should be looking that the possibility of the opposite is true in major cases such as this one. Josh Marshall sees the Clinton email story as an example of massive media failure:
"All this said, this was 99.9% predictable and 100% obvious. It's a mammoth press failure that for various reasons this reality was concealed from the public."
Methodology of Shorenstein Study

The key paragraph is below.

"The data were provided by Media Tenor, a firm that specializes in collecting and coding news content. Media Tenor’s coding of print and television news stories is conducted by trained staff members who visually evaluate the content. Computer-based coding is less reliable and is not used in Media Tenor’s research. Coding of individual actors (e.g., presidential candidates) is done on a comprehensive basis, capturing all statements of more than five lines (print) or five seconds (TV) of coverage for a given actor. Coders identify relevant themes (topics) for all actors in a given report and evaluate tone (positive or negative) on a six-point scale. These tonality ratings are then combined to classify each report for each actor as being negative, positive, or having no clear tone. Coding quality is maintained through comprehensive spot checks and inter-coder cross checks to maintain a minimum 85 percent inter-coder reliability rate.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Manitoba Election: After 16 years the NDP can expect to leave office

A version of this has been cross-posted at iPolitics.

Manitoba will elect a new government when voters go to the polls on April 19. Barring dramatic and unexpected developments during the campaign, Manitobans will elect a PC government lead by Brian Pallister, a one-time federal Canadian Alliance and Conservative MP.

Should he win, Pallister would displace an NDP regime that has governed since 1999, when Gary Doer defeated incumbent PC Gary Filmon. Recent polls have given the Progressive Conservatives a large lead. However, average Conservative support is registering just a little higher than the nearly 44 percent the party achieved in the October, 2011 election.

The big difference has been a striking increase in Liberal support at the expense of the NDP: the big lead comes from an even split in support between the two parties. Polls currently suggest they might end up with as many as 40 of 57 constituencies.

The NDP government of Greg Selinger has been in political trouble since 2013, when it reversed a campaign promise from 2011 not to increase the sales tax in order to generate revenue to finance infrastructure investment needed to respond to a series of unprecedented floods. The tax hike (from 7 percent to 8) was followed a year later by an extraordinary rebellion in party ranks that forced Selinger to defend his leadership at a party convention in 2015 - where he barely scraped by.

Liberal gains should perhaps not be surprising given the strong showing of the federal Liberals in Manitoba last October (the party captured 7 of Manitoba's 14 seats). One might think that a key advantage for the Liberals is the popularity of the new federal Liberal government of Justin Trudeau, and no doubt he has helped the Liberal brand name.  However, the federal and provincial parties have an icy relationship and the federal party apparently does not think much of Manitoba Liberal leader Rana Bokhari.

Winnipeg Free Press reporter Mia Rabson offered this account in February:

"There’s not a lot of enthusiasm for the leader," said one federal Liberal source speaking on the condition of anonymity. "It’s a different organization than us. They are just completely different."

Some of Bokhari’s policies, such as privatizing liquor sales, are too far to the right for federal Grits, and the fact she hired former Tories solidified the feeling she doesn’t have a lot in common with Team Trudeau. (Provincial Liberal Director of Communications Mike) Brown used to work in the regional ministerial office of former Conservative MP Vic Toews. To say there was no love lost between Toews and federal Liberals would be an understatement, and there are many who simply don’t trust anyone who worked for him.

That has prevented federal Liberal riding associations from handing over their lengthy electoral lists of supporters, volunteers and donors to provincial candidates.

Historically the Manitoba Liberals have traditionally leaned to the right of their federal counterparts so it appears nothing has changed. Still the surge in Liberal support may have the party thinking in terms of 1988, a year when the Manitoba Liberals, after years of electoral drought, suddenly found both federal and provincial success. In the 1988 Manitoba election under leader Sharon Carstairs the party captured two-thirds of the constituencies in the City of Winnipeg just as an incumbent NDP government was failing. If the province stopped at Winnipeg's Perimeter Highway there would have been a large Liberal majority government that year. However, the Liberals won just one seat outside Winnipeg, allowing PC Gary Filmon to form a minority government that he would convert to a long-term majority two years later.

For the Manitoba PCs division of the electorate between two opposition parties has been a key to electoral success. For the NDP success has come at the expense of the Liberals. The reciprocal character of NDP/Liberal support over time is illustrated in the graphic.


There are other differences: this is Rana Bokhari's first election as Liberal leader while 1988 was the second for Sharon Carstairs. She had already achieved at least modest success in the 1986 Manitoba election including winning a seat in the legislature. Bokhari may not repeat the 1988 success but some gains are likely.

The NDP won the 2011 election in no small part due to some highly successful attacks on the previous PC government's record in office. The dissatisfaction levels they face this time make repeating that effort seemingly impossible. They would be better off going after the provincial Liberals to strengthen the party's position over the longer run.

And the Pallister Tories may be planting the seeds of their own destruction. How many Manitoba voters have noticed the caveat in the PC platform about the sales tax: it won't be reduced immediately but rather as the PC website declares: 'PCs will roll back PST to seven per cent within first mandate'. In other words it will be a four-year wait, and getting there could well involve highly unpopular spending cuts.

The slow growth of recent years has put all governments in Canada under acute fiscal pressures that have yet to let up. There will be no special dispensation for Brian Pallister. After railing for years agains the fiscal record of the NDP he now cautiously says he will work towards balancing the budget, promising only to slow the rate of increase in spending undertaken by the Selinger government.  The sales tax cut must wait.

One paradox of this election is that the Selinger government is not getting the credit a government might expect to receive for the relatively strong growth in the Manitoba economy - perhaps because New Democrats have a reputation as wobbly economic managers. Pallister is going to need this growth to continue and strengthen, if his optimistic plan is to have any hope of succeeding. It appears certain now that he will get his chance.

Governments don't get to stay in office forever, as we saw last year in Alberta. A similar reality is about to confront the Manitoba NDP.  However, if history is any guide, just as the federal Liberals achieved a restoration to power on Parliament Hill after a decade in the wilderness, we might expect to see something similar down the road in Manitoba.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

How do you account for the rise and popularity of Donald Trump?

That was the question posed to me in an email from my younger brother Dave. 

A good place to start an explanation is the off year election in Nebraska in 2014. This solidly safe conservative Republican midwestern state appeared to do something normally associated with liberal Democrats.  The 2014 mid-term election result in Nebraska saw the state overwhelmingly re-elect their Republican Governor and Senator and deliver two out of three Congressional districts to the Republicans (one Omaha based district went barely Democrat). However, Nebraskans also voted by a margin of 59 to 41 percent in a referendum to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $8.00. By varying margins four other conservative Republican states did the same. Back in Washington at the same time the Congressional Republicans were rejecting efforts by President Obama to raise the federal minimum wage.

Much of the Republican base is blue collar white working class, but have generally elected Republicans who only paid attention to the economic interests of their billionaire donors and country club suburban voters. With the blue collar base (primarily in the southern, plains and border states) they cultivated its social conservatism and racism. So it should not be surprising that given the chance many of these same voters would directly support a higher minimum wage even as their Washington representatives voted the opposite way. This speaks directly to the internal tensions and contradictions that have long been at the heart of the Republican Party.

Part of Trump's appeal is an economically populist pitch. For example, this quote is from the conservative columnist Byron Yorke of the National Review who, like the rest of his ilk, is appalled by Trump:
In a nearly one-hour speech, Trump railed against pharmaceutical companies. He railed against oil companies. And insurance companies. And defense contractors. And he set himself against a political system that he said allows big-money corporate "bloodsuckers" to control the government with campaign contributions.
"Whether it's the insurance companies, or the drug companies, or the oil companies, it's all the same thing," Trump said. "We're never going to get our country back if we keep doing this."
Trump promised to allow the government to negotiate drug prices — a common position among Democrats but rarely heard at nominally Republican events. He said he would not raise military spending, arguing that the nation's defenses can be improved without increasing its already huge Pentagon budget. He promised tough sanctions on American companies that move jobs overseas.
Trump has attacked one dearly held elite Republican belief after another, including international trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the so-called TPP, which has been signed by Canada as well as the United States, although neither country has yet formally ratified the deal. Another Trump quote, this time from liberal New York columnist Jonathan Chait, concerning Trump's professed affinity with Bernie Sanders, who also opposes the TPP:
"The one thing we very much agree on is trade. We both agree that we are getting ripped off by China, by Japan, by Mexico, everyone we do business with," Trump said.
However, at the core of Trump's appeal is his outspoken pitch to the intolerance that is characteristic of the Republican party's lower income base - his anti-Muslim and anti-immigration rhetoric, capped by his idiotic proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border that Mexico will allegedly pay for. Trump's bombastic speaking style befits this longtime TV huckster. The important thing about Trump's words is that they have typically gone far beyond the code words and euphemisms about race and immigration that most Republicans have utilized.

Appeals to racism have been a key part of Republican strategy since Nixon concocted his "Southern strategy" in 1968 with former Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond. But the coalition is coming apart at the seams. This is well described in a Nation article by William Greider who notes:
At the heart of this intramural conflict is the fact that society has changed dramatically in recent decades, but the GOP has refused to change with it. Americans are rapidly shifting toward more tolerant understandings of personal behavior and social values, but the Republican Party sticks with retrograde social taboos and hard-edged prejudices about race, gender, sexual freedom, immigration, and religion.
He quotes from a recent article by "Scott Lilly, a liberal Democrat who for many years was the sagacious staff director of the House Appropriations Committee". Lilly wrote the following:
Ever since Kevin Phillips published The Emerging Republican Majority 46 years ago, there has been a serious flaw in the contract that holds the party together. Today’s GOP is made up of two groups that are polar opposites among White Americans. The traditional wing of the party is not simply pro-business but represents a large majority of the country’s corporate leadership, financiers, and investors. Some call these the “country club” Republicans, and while they are a small fraction of the voting population, they have enormous resources to influence the voting behavior of those not privileged to hold a country club membership.
At the opposite end of the economic and educational spectrum of White America is a group that was welcomed into the Republican fold by Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972. Their numbers make the Republicans a formidable national party. The problem is that this latter group has almost nothing in common with the country club wing of the party. Country clubbers don’t care about prayer in the public schools, gun rights, stopping birth control, abortion, and immigration (i.e. restricting their own ability to hire illegal aliens).
On the other hand, the largely poor, rural, church-going whites who have swelled the party’s electoral turnout don’t care about marginal tax rates, capital formation, or government subsidies to large corporations, such as those provided through the Export-Import Bank. If they ever fully understood that their more prosperous party brethren were contemplating deep cuts in Medicare and Medicaid to pay for those policies, they would be in open rebellion.
In that last sentence we see the connection to the vote on the minimum wage in Nebraska.

The demographic reality that made the "Southern strategy" effective is rapidly changing. The core racism and intolerance of Republican voters explain Trump's appeal, which is made that much more attractive to the base by his economic populism and nationalism. Trump has brilliantly synthesized an appeal that combines a pitch to the Republican rural and blue collar voters' racial and religious intolerance, while simultaneously offering solace to their economic frustrations triggered by stagnating income amid growing inequality.

Many of the southern Evangelical Christians assiduously courted by Trump might have been thought to be offended by stories of his prior support for liberal positions on issues such as abortion, gun control and legalizing drugs. That has not proven to be the case, and part of the reason is the weakening of religion among these Christians who have joined others in reducing their church attendance. Consider the following:
It has long been accepted wisdom that less-educated, working-class white Americans are the nation’s most faithful churchgoers. However, a study released Sunday at the American Sociological Association’s annual convention dispels that widely-held perception. 
Over the past four decades, monthly church attendance by moderately educated whites – defined as those with high school diplomas and maybe some college – has declined to 37 percent from 50 percent, according to the study co-authored by sociologists W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia and Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University. 
Church attendance by the least educated whites – defined as those lacking high school diplomas – fell to 23 percent from 38 percent.
It appears as the blogger Digby wrote "that a lot of these white conservative working class types identify as evangelical as much for tribal reasons as religious commitment." This simply makes them open to his economic nationalist message combined with the intolerance.  They easily overlook his 'liberal' past.

While those on the centre and left have been appalled by Trump, so too have shrewd Republican analysts and strategists who are terrified of what he might do to the party's prospects. While Trump appears to be highly intelligent and tactically agile, he has actually conducted a campaign based on winging it, and is wholly unprepared to be President. As Elizabeth Drew has pointed out:
One has the sense that Trump hasn’t made a special effort to bone up on specific issues, that he gets his information from television talk shows and Time. He counts on bluster to propel him. And he adjusts. After the Republican debate preceding the South Carolina primary descended into an out-of-control screaming match, with candidates calling each other liars—John Kasich, who has insisted on a positive campaign, didn’t partake—Trump toned himself down; he also swore off swearing, because it wouldn’t go down well, he was told, with the good people of South Carolina, which has an even higher proportion of Evangelical voters than Iowa. If Trump is the nominee, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he toned down further, studied up on some issues, and projected an earnestness that would have reporters rhapsodizing about the “New Trump.” What’s astonishing is that someone so intellectually and temperamentally unsuited for the presidency has gotten so close to it.
The question this raises is: how close? Some time ago Rachel Maddow, the MSNBC talk show host who is horrified by Trump, was saying that even if he looked like he would probably lose the election if nominated, she remained anxious because, as she kept repeating, "you never know" what might happen during a campaign to produce an unanticipated outcome.

On the face of it Trump is likely to lose.  As Nate Silver has  pointed out, he is the most unpopular of all the presidential candidates, when you take the opinions of those who view him favourably minus those who have an unfavourable view. But it is not just opinions of the moment that we should consider. Trump and the Republican Party appeal primarily to white voters in a country where demographics are quickly making it more diverse.

In 2012 Obama was re-elected despite getting the "smallest share of white voters of any presidential candidate in history." Blogger Digby quoted from an article by Ron Brownstein that is behind a paywall:
...The key ques­tion fa­cing the GOP is wheth­er Obama’s 2012 per­form­ance rep­res­ents a struc­tur­al Demo­crat­ic de­cline among whites that could deep­en even fur­ther in the years ahead — or a floor from which the next Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee is likely to im­prove.
In re­cent months, a chor­us of con­ser­vat­ive ana­lysts has bet on the first op­tion. They in­sist that Re­pub­lic­ans, by im­prov­ing both turnout and already-gap­ing mar­gins among whites, can re­cap­ture the White House in 2016 without re­for­mu­lat­ing their agenda to at­tract more minor­ity voters — most prom­in­ently by passing im­mig­ra­tion-re­form le­gis­la­tion that in­cludes a path­way to cit­izen­ship for those here il­leg­ally.
On the oth­er side is an ar­ray of Re­pub­lic­an strategists who view minor­ity out­reach and im­mig­ra­tion re­form as crit­ic­al to restor­ing the party’s com­pet­it­ive­ness — and con­sider it sui­cid­al for the GOP to bet its fu­ture on the pro­spect that it can squeeze even lar­ger ad­vant­ages out of the di­min­ish­ing pool of white voters. Karl Rove, the chief strategist for George W. Bush’s two pres­id­en­tial vic­tor­ies, has noted that re­ly­ing en­tirely on whites would soon re­quire Re­pub­lic­ans to reg­u­larly match the tower­ing ad­vant­age Re­agan re­cor­ded among them when he lost only a single state in his 1984 reelec­tion. “It’s un­reas­on­able to ex­pect Re­pub­lic­ans to routinely pull num­bers that last oc­curred in a 49-state sweep,” Rove said at the As­pen Ideas Fest­iv­al this sum­mer.
No presidential candidate has so clearly articulated his rationale for a whites-only strategy as Donald Trump. Rachel Maddow is right - you never know what unusual event might happen mid-election to propel a Trump into the White House. That qualification aside if Trump wins the nomination the Republican Party is headed for its worst electoral result since 1964. It won't be nearly as bad as 1964 given the gerrymandering of districts in the House of Representatives and the increasingly ideological polarization of the United States as illustratated in this Pew Research graphic:

However, compared to any election since then it is likely to produce worst possible outcome for the Republicans.

And Trump's success to date is due in no small part to his weak opponents.  Evangelical Christian Ted Cruz has a self-defined limit to his appeal while none of the establishment or so-called moderate Republicans including Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush have demonstrated strong political skills. When an unlikely candidate does unexpectedly well, a closer examination of the contest can reveal simply the absence of real competition.

Since their last truly terrible electoral defeat in 1964, more recent Republican losses have been much narrower and can be explained away. Meanwhile the forces in the Republican party opposed to Trump have grown increasingly desperate. The New York Times reported on February 27, the day of the Democratic primary in South Carolina that appeared to confirm that Hillary Clinton would be the party's nominee, they found real despair among the upper echelons of the Republicans:
In dozens of interviews, elected officials, political strategists and donors described a frantic, last-ditch campaign to block Mr. Trump — and the agonizing reasons that many of them have become convinced it will fail. Behind the scenes, a desperate mission to save the party sputtered and stalled at every turn.
The bleak mood of these strategists is entirely justified. Trump's triumph is internal to the Republican Party; it does not extend beyond it.