Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Fiscal Cliff? Thelma & Louise Fiscal Calamity? More Like Fiscal Perfect Storm

This piece appears at WFAE's The Party Line under the title "Kabuki Dance Underway Amid Fiscal Cliff" and is reprinted here

The Fiscal Cliff. Fiscal Armageddon. The Thelma and Louise Fiscal Calamity. It may go by many names, but since the election is over and the status quo has been returned to Washington, the nation’s great debate turns to the fiscal and budgetary matters that are ticking down faster than the Mayan predictions of the end of the world.

In short, we hear of this great economic catastrophe the country faces, more probably accurately named the Fiscal Perfect Storm.

The first whammy: the tax rate reductions put into effect in the first two years of the George W. Bush administration are set to expire, with rates returning to what they were in the Clinton administration. 

The second whammy: “sequestration” due to the lack of Congressional will to come up with their own spending reduction plan.  Since Congress couldn’t trust itself to come up with spending cuts on their own, they took the political courage to impose automatic cuts across the board through the Budget Control Act of 2012.

These cuts affect both defense and domestic discretionary spending and are across the board.  The federal budget is made up of two basic components: mandatory spending (on things that are out of year-to-year control of Congress, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other spending that is set by law that must be spent), and discretionary spending, which includes defense spending and all domestic spending that we typically associate with the federal government.

The third whammy: the debt ceiling.  As part of the Budget Control Act, the debt ceiling was raised as part of the package, but that ceiling was only slated to get the Congress and the White House past the 2012 elections.

And so, with the elections in the rear-view mirror now, the country is getting once again close to its credit card limit.

With these three whammies—tax rates returning to pre-2001 & 2003 levels, spending cuts across the board, and the nation’s credit card being maxed out—it’s more than just a cliff we seem to be heading towards, but rather a perfect economic storm.

Demonocracy.info presents a “visualization” of many issues, especially economic perspectives, and has a great resource on the implications of what we are facing at the end of the year. 

So, how do we get past this storm? The election really didn’t send a clear signal other than both Democrats and Republicans were returned to office—and the sense from the electorate was, “work together.” 

But can both sides really work together when they have such fundamentally different views? 

One of the key reasons that we are in the midst of the kabuki theater antics of both political sides is because there is no political “middle.”

Two political scientists, lead by Dr. Keith Poole at The University of Georgia, has developed a measure to compare individual members of Congress (MoCs) to their colleagues when it comes to voting on economic issues.

Their calculations take individual MoC votes on economic issues and “line members up” in their “yea” and “nay” votes in comparison to the chamber as a whole.  The final results put the votes into a measure of how “liberal” (meaning, voting for more government involvement in economic issues) or “conservative” (voting for less government involvement in economic issues) the members are.

The measures give us a spectrum of members in both the House and Senate, lining up from -1.5 being the most liberal member casting votes on economic issues to 1.5 being the most conservative member casting votes on economic issues. 

Using an assumption that a “moderate middle” is between -0.25 and 0.25, we can map out where most members fall on this spectrum for both parties.

In the 1950s, the U.S. House of Representatives had two political parties with members in the “middle” when it comes to economic issues.  For example, the 84th House of Representatives had Democrats who were “more conservative” than some Republicans, and Republicans who were “more liberal” than Democrats. 

The 84th House of Representatives (1955-56): Frequency of
Democrats and Republicans based on Economic Dimension of Voting

In addition, both parties had significant numbers of members in the “middle” range (-0.25 to 0.25), meaning that these moderate members between the two red lines shared similar ideas on economic issues when it came to casting their votes on bills. 

Fast forward to the 111th House of Representatives (we’re currently in the 112th, but the preliminary measures aren’t that far off from what we see currently) and there is a very different set of parties.

The 111th House of Representatives (2009-2010): Frequency of
Democrats and Republicans based on Economic Dimension of Voting

In our modern House of Representatives, the moderates are non-existent and the parties have moved increasingly to their polarized ends of the spectrum.

The U.S. Senate, the body once described as the “saucer” to cool the passion of the “cup” that is the House by our nation’s first president,” has experienced a similar movement from the political parties of the 1950s to today. 

So where is the group who will make the compromise between the two parties, especially in the House? 

One of the key obstacles that the House Republican leadership is facing is within their own rules, known as the “majority of the majority” rule.  As NPR has reported, House Republicans will not bring up a measure to vote unless a majority of the GOP conference (made up of all House Republicans) supports the measure. 

And by all indications, the majority of the GOP majority are not budging.

Some would argue that with what the country is facing long term, the jump off the cliff may not necessarily be the worst thing. But what the private markets (i.e., Wall Street) hate is uncertainity, and what politicians and the general public hate is a Wall Street roller-coaster ride; we may see a short-term solution after both sides are done with their kabuki dance.

But dark clouds are still gathering when there isn’t some longer-term solution to our fiscal storm. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Tonight's the Night: Election 2012

I'll be working with WFAE (Charlotte's NPR News Station) tonight for Election Coverage. I'll also be on Twitter (my handle is @CatawbaPolitics or--if I get put into Twitter Time Out on that account--my alternate account is @BowTiePolitics) and will be tweeting a lot there, along with posting some info here.

I hope you got the chance to get out and vote today and are looking forward to tonight's results. The long hard road of the 2012 Campaign is near--hang in there!  Michael

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Entering the Waning Days of North Carolina Early Voting

As we head into the waning days of early voting in North Carolina, here's the latest update (as of Tuesday, Oct. 30) on the numbers of Tar Heel voters heading to the polls before the official Election Day (the following numbers are of "accepted" ballots so far):

  • 1,562,112 in-person (walk-in) ballots cast
  • 132,524 mail-in ballots 
  • 5,495 "others" (e-mail and fax requested) ballots
These numbers represent an increase of 26% over the cumulative same-day totals in 2008 (nearly 1.7 million so far this year compared to 1.3 million this same date in 2008). 

In looking at "walk-in" (in-person/one-stop) ballots cast so far, North Carolina is running approximately 17% ahead of the cumulative total on the same day in 2008. However, Monday's preliminary totals reflected a drop of about approximately 22,000 ballots from the same day in 2008.  This is probably due to the impact of Hurri-blizzard Sandy, especially on the coast and in the mountains.  

Cumulative Totals of In-Person Absentee Ballots Cast in North Carolina: Comparison of 2008 to 2012

In terms of the three major party affiliations in North Carolina, all three are still ahead of their cumulative 2008 totals at the same point in time; however, Democrats have dropped to 50% of the total ballots cast so far, while Republicans are 29% and Unaffiliated Voters are at 19% of the total in-person absentee ballots cast so far.

Cumulative 2012 to 2008 In-Person Absentee Ballots Cast in NC by Registered Voter Party Affiliation

In looking at each party's daily activities, Democrats, with the exception of Monday, are over-performing their 2008 numbers. Interesting, both Republicans and Unaffiliated voters also over-performed their 2008 numbers, including on Monday--but just barely (Republicans added 1,627 over their 2008 numbers and Unaffiliated voters added 589 over their 2008 numbers).

Again, my experience has been that these numbers will be revised in the next few days.

Daily 2012 Compared to 2008 In-Person Registered Ballots Cast in North Carolina by Registered Democrats

Daily 2012 Compared to 2008 In-Person Absentee Ballots Cast in North Carolina by Registered Republicans

Daily 2012 Compared to 2008 In-Person Absentee Ballots Cast in North Carolina by Registered Unaffiliated

 In looking at the racial composition of the in-person absentee ballots cast so far, both white and black voters did experience a drop in their numbers on Monday relative to their 2008 same day total.  However, this number will most likely readjust in the next few days, along with the impact of Sandy.

2012 Compared to 2008 In-Person Absentee Ballots Cast in North Carolina by White and Black/African-American Voters

Nevertheless, white voters continue to compose 65% of the in-person absentee ballots cast, while black voters are 30% (in 2008's total electorate--combining both early and Election Day--they were 22%), while "all other races" are at 5% of the total in-person ballots cast.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Day 5 of Early Voting in North Carolina

Yesterday I noted that all three registered party groups--Democrats, Republicans, and Unaffiliated--saw their daily numbers exceed the first four days of 2008 in early voting here in North Carolina.  That trend, however, didn't last into the fifth day.

In terms of the total numbers, the fifth day of early voting continued the over-performance of votes cast in comparison to the same day in 2008.

Cumulative Totals of In-Person Absentee Ballots Cast in North Carolina
Comparison of 2008 to 2012

We now have over 500,000 votes banked, with two weeks to go before Election Day here in North Carolina.

For both registered Republicans and Unaffiliated voters, they continued to march past their respective 2008 numbers on the first Monday of early voting in the Tar Heel state.  But for registered Democrats casting ballots, they came up about 5,000 short of the number they saw in 2008's early voting.

Daily 2012 Compared to 2008 In-Person Absentee Ballots 
Cast in North Carolina by Registered Democrats

Daily 2012 Compared to 2008 In-Person Absentee Ballots
Cast in North Carolina by Registered Republicans

Daily 2012 Compared to 2008 In-Person Absentee Ballots
Cast in North Carolina by Registered Unaffiliated Voters

In terms of race, the ballots cast by white voters continued to be at 61% while black voters were at 35% and all other races were at 5% of the votes cast.  With the question of whether black voters will be either 22% of the total electorate (which they were in 2008) or a lower percentage, it appears that black voters are showing up at numbers that could influence the total pool of votes cast.

2012 Compared to 2008 In-Person Absentee Ballots Cast in North Carolina
by White and Black/African-American Voters 

One other interesting aspect of the early voter pool is the breakdown among women and men.  We are hearing about the increasing gender gap that is prevalent in this year's presidential election, but in terms of early voting, women are soundly showing up over men.  And there is a marked partisan slant to women voters.

Female vs. Male NC Early Voters (In-Person Absentee)

Among registered female voters casting early ballots, 60% of them are registered Democrats, while among registered male voters, it is a 49-30% split between Democrats and Republicans.

Female NC Early Voters by Party Registration (In-Person Absentee)

Male NC Early Voters by Party Registration (In-Person Absentee)

I'll try to post more in terms of age demographics of early voters later today.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The First Four Days of Early Voting (In-Person) in North Carolina

Now that North Carolina has a few days of In-Person Absentee ballot casting (otherwise commonly known as Early Voting), we can start to do some comparisons with the performance of different groups--registered Democrats, Republicans, and Unaffiliated voters, for example--to their performances in 2008's record-breaking early voting activity.

In the below graphic is the trend line for early voting as a whole, with all ballots cast as In-Person Absentee votes.  In comparison to 2008, the cumulative early votes cast are exceeding those posted four years ago.

On the first day of early voting, more than 49,000 more votes were cast this year than in 2008, and the three subsequent days also saw more votes cast than on the same days four years ago: by 40,000, 24,000, and 8,600 respectively.

In looking deeper into these ballots cast, though, we can also see some partisan patterns emerging that could give an indication that the Democratic ground-game is back in full operation this year.

In looking at the trend lines for registered Democrats, Republicans and Unaffiliated voters casting ballots, all of them are above their 2008 numbers--with Democrats making considerable totals added to their numbers from four years ago.

Party Numbers by Cumulative Daily Totals from 2012 Early Voting (In-Person) to 2008's Early Voting (In-Person)

The next three charts detail the three different groups and their progress so far in the first four days of 2012 early voting in comparison to 2008's trend lines.

Registered Unaffiliated Voters in Daily Totals Casting Early Votes (In-Person)

Registered Republican Voters in Daily Totals Casting Early Votes (In-Person)

Registered Democratic Voters in Daily Totals Casting Early Votes (In-Person)

While all three groups of voters are above their 2008 trend lines, Democrats had impressive numbers in the first four days of early voting.

With that being said, a major qualifier must be made at this point: not all North Carolina registered Democrats will vote Democratic.  Granted, we know from exit poll data going back several presidential elections that self-identified partisans will typically vote 90% of the time for their party's candidate, but in the Tar Heel state, it is likely that some registered Democrats--who are older, white, conservative, and rural--are actually Republican voters.

So, while the numbers look good for Democrats, a major caveat has to be warned in reading into how these voters may be selecting their presidential candidate.

One other facet of early voters could be the racial composition. In 2008, black registered voters made up 22% of the entire electorate, but that combines both early voting and Election Day voting. Among early voters, black voters were 29% of all the early votes cast, with white voters being 67% of all the ballots cast in early voting.

In the first four days of early voting, black voters are 35% of the early votes cast and are building on their numbers from four years ago; white voters are down to 60% of the votes cast.  All other races--Asian, Native American, and others--are 5% of the votes cast so far; in comparison, they were only 1% of the early votes cast in 2008.

Daily Numbers from 2012 Compared to 2008 In-Person Absentee Ballots Cast in North Carolina by White and Black/African-American Voters 

I'll be posting more about the early voters casting ballots over the next two weeks, and will be posting some summaries at the other blog I write for, WFAE's The Party Line.

Just a reminder: in 2008, we had 4.3 million votes cast in the North Carolina presidential election, with 58% of those votes coming before Election Day.  While I'm not sure we will see a repeat of that 4.3 million total votes cast, I may be rethinking that due to the numbers of early votes we are seeing in just the first four days.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Sorting Our Polarized Politics

Note: This post was originally on WFAE's The Party Line website until the site underwent a change and was deleted. I'm reposting it for folks who are interested as we get closer to the election (thanks to Rick Short who asked for a repost).  

We read all the time about how “polarized” our nation is, and we see it in the “red versus blue” categorization, the way that the U.S. Congress behaves, even the animosity that seems to be driving the two parties at the local level against each other.

Over sixty years ago, the American Political Science Association released a report that said that the two major parties needed to be more “responsible” in the governing process.  In fact, the report argued that an active opposition is “most conducive to responsible government” and that “when there are two parties identifiable by the kinds of action they propose, the voters have an actual choice” (page 19).

So now we have parties that are truly different, and is it any surprise that we have the polarization now?  But there has to be a starting point—a foundation—for where that polarization begins. 

Some scholars of our nation’s politics believe that it starts from the top down—that the elites within the parties have sorted themselves into ideologically coherent divisions, and that the masses have followed right along with them.

But what about at the grassroots level?  Can we see the impact of two very different political parties at the local level?

In running some analysis on the recent redistricting of Mecklenburg’s County Commission districts, I came across an interesting analysis of the various precincts in the Great State of Meck: out of the county’s 195 precincts, only thirteen could be considered “toss-up” precincts, ones that could potentially go either Democratic or Republican when voting for president.

For the vast majority—137 precincts in Mecklenburg—the analysis showed that the one political party tended to dominant in those precincts: 72 precincts were “likely Republican” in their presidential voting patterns, while another 65 were “likely Democratic.” 

The way that I arrived at this analysis was to take the past two presidential elections in the precincts and look at the differences between the two party’s votes, in comparison to the county average’s for both party’s presidential candidates.  So, in 2004, John Kerry won Mecklenburg with 52% of the vote, while four years, Obama won with 61% of the vote—there’s your baseline. 

Then, I took each precinct and compared the performance of the presidential candidates against the county baseline; for example, in Precinct 56, Kerry won with 97% of the vote, and Obama captured 99% of the vote.  

Taking the differences between the precinct’s performance compared to the county  (45 and 38) and then averaging the two years together, you come up with a Partisan Voting Index for that precinct: for Precinct 56, it was 41% for the Democrats, or D+41.

Using a classification of anything over +10 on either side as “likely” to vote for that party, those between +3 and +10 as “lean” and anything below +3 as “toss-up” precincts, you can assign each precinct into one of these categories to see the voting behavior of Mecklenburg County by its various precincts:

What stands out to me is the sheer number of “likely” precincts that are either heavily Democratic or heavily Republican, based on presidential voting patterns.  With so very few “toss-up” precincts, Mecklenburg voters seem to have sorted themselves into politically segregated areas.

So what does this tell us?  Several years ago, Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing wrote “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.” They argue that, even though the nation is becoming more diverse, where Americans live is becoming more homogenous: that we live in areas where our neighbors think, live, and vote like we do. 

By looking at this phenomenon from the ground up, Bishop contends that Americans have “sorted” themselves into like-minded communities, and that by doing so, we have found ourselves in our current polarized state: “mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes. Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward the extremes” (page 68).

As North Carolinians head into the primary electoral season on May 8th, it would be worth remembering that when we have conversations with folks of the opposite party, ending with people shaking their heads and saying “why don’t those folks just understand where I’m coming from,” it could be because they don’t live in a like-minded precinct as we do.

And therefore, voters have no reason to understand where the other side is coming from—and that we are shocked when we complain that our politics is so polarized.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

What Influenced North Carolina's Vote on the Amendment?

In looking at the amendment vote across the state, we see some things that really shouldn’t surprise a lot of folks regarding the results, but then there are some aspects that, when you dig deeper in, are surprising. 

First, we heard a lot about the controversy within the black community regarding the vote on the amendment defining marriage, in particular the split between social conservatism and civil rights. 

In the counties with a black population of over 50 percent, support for the amendment was an average of 68%.  In these eight counties (Hertford, Edgecombe, Bertie, Northampton, Warren, Halifax, Vance, and Washington), voter turnout was at 36%, above the statewide average of 34%.

But what about the larger, urban areas, with pockets of minority voters in them? Did they vote like their rural counterparts?

In Mecklenburg County, 41 precincts are “majority-minority” precincts, with black voter population of 50% or more. These precincts voted, on average, 46% for the constitutional amendment, with majority-minority precincts in Mecklenburg voting 56% against the amendment.

Another difference between urban and rural black areas was voter turnout. Compared to the countywide turnout of 28% in Mecklenburg, majority-minority precincts had an average of 19% voter turnout.

More analysis will be needed, but the suspicion of a rural-urban divide seems to be more prevalent than the factor of race regarding the voting pattern on the constitutional amendment. I’ll be exploring more about that in later posts.

For now, what other factors may have influenced the vote for the constitutional amendment? With the aid of a statistical software program, I took the 100 county results for the amendment and ran several different factors that one would think would have some kind of effect on support for the amendment.

For example, the more a county voted for John McCain in 2008 (a sign of how Republican a county would be), would there be increased support for the constitutional amendment on marriage?  As found in Figure 1, that was indeed the case: the more a county was a McCain supporter translated into more support for the constitutional amendment on marriage.

Figure 1: North Carolina County Vote for McCain in November 2008 and the County’s Vote for the Constitutional Amendment on Marriage in May 2008

So if McCain support might indicate the level of support for the amendment, would the amount of support for Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential primary indicate amendment support as well?

Figure 2: North Carolina County Support for Mitt Romney in the May 2012 Republican Presidential Primary and the County’s Support for the May 2012 Constitutional Amendment on Marriage

Well, there’s something: the more the county voted for Mitt Romney, the less likely it was to vote for the constitutional amendment.  Granted (for the stats geeks out there), the predictive power (aka, adjusted r2) is less than 5%, but this seems weird.

How about looking at the votes against Mitt? Would a county that cast more votes for the other Republican candidates (remember, Gingrich, Santorum, Paul, and “no preference” were still listed on the GOP primary ballot) show an increased amount of votes for the amendment?

Figure 3: North Carolina County Support for “Anybody but Romney” in the May 2012 Republican Presidential Primary and the County’s Support for the May 2012 Constitutional Amendment on Marriage

It appears that perhaps Republican support for the party’s presumptive nominee hasn’t quite solidified around Romney, as indicated by the fact that, statewide, one-third of Republican primary voters voted for someone other than Romney.

In the 63 counties that cast more than 33% against Romney in the GOP presidential primary, the average level of support for the constitutional amendment was 72%, nearly 11 points higher than the statewide result of 61% support.  And these counties, on average, voted 55% for John McCain in 2008 and has (again on average) 33% registered Republican voters—a sign perhaps that, in some key counties, the base of the Republican Party hasn’t been sold on Romney’s candidacy quite yet.

So, would the percentage of registered Republicans in a county have any indication of the level of support for the constitutional amendment?

Figure 4: North Carolina County Percentage of GOP Registered Voters and the County’s Support for the May 2012 Constitutional Amendment on Marriage

It would appear that as a county’s percentage of registered GOP voters increased, so to did support for the constitutional amendment. No real surprise there. But what about a county’s Democratic and unaffiliated registered voters?

One thing we saw in public opinion was as the primary date drew closer, the level of opposition by Democrats and unaffiliated voters seemed to swing against the amendment.  Public Policy Polling saw a majority of Democrats (53%) express opposition to the amendment, while unaffiliated voters were nearly evenly split (47-46%). Only Republicans were overwhelmingly for the amendment (80%).

In counties where the percentage of registered Democrats increased, there seemed to be a slight decline in support for the amendment.

Figure 5: North Carolina County Percentage of Democratic Registered Voters and the County’s Support for the May 2012 Constitutional Amendment on Marriage

In areas that saw increased percentages of registered unaffiliated voters, the trend was also more pronounced in voting against the amendment.

Figure 6: North Carolina County Percentage of Unaffiliated Registered Voters and the County’s Support for the May 2012 Constitutional Amendment on Marriage

One final analysis that I ran was the most surprising of them all. Since President Obama did win the Democratic presidential primary, he did pull only 79% of the support of Democrats and Democratic-unaffiliated voters in the state, with nearly 21% of the ballots cast expressing “no preference.” If one was to read that as a vote against Obama, what might have been the trend when voting for the constitutional amendment in comparison?

Figure 7: North Carolina County Percentage of Democrats Voting “No Preference” in the Presidential Primary and the County’s Support for the May 2012 Constitutional Amendment on Marriage

With a whooping r2 of 57% (meaning, that 57% of the vote for the constitutional amendment could be explained by the Democratic “no preference” vote), this is the most surprising of the county-level analysis that I’ve seen: as counties voted more “no preference” against their presidential nominee (the president), the support for the constitutional amendment rose.

What I take away from this is that there is still the conservative North Carolina Democrat present, especially in rural counties of the state (note the rural counties in the upper-right corner, in comparison to the predominance of urban counties in the lower left corner). 

I’ll be looking at more of the internal party races in the next few entries, but seeing how these results line up against the upcoming general election will be some more fascinating analysis to look at.