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Author Page for Dave Brockington

Born in San Jose, grew up in Seattle, received a Ph.D. in poli sci from University of Washington, worked for three years at Universiteit Twente in Enschede, Netherlands, and have worked at the University of Plymouth for eight academic years now in Plymouth, United Kingdom.

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Britain is Rubbish (UK attitudes towards the EU, Part ∞)

[ 46 ] January 29, 2013 |

Next year, the temporary ban on the free movement of labor imposed upon the two newest members of the European Union, Romania and Bulgaria, expires. Terrified of an influx of immigrants from these two member states, the British Government is considering running a negative advertising campaign in Romania and Bulgaria to demonstrate just how shit the UK really is. Seriously. There’s too much humor value here to let it slide.

The Guardian has a slide show of 18 proposed posters submitted by their readers here.  I chose the example above as Plymouth is particularly gruesome when it comes to trash bags on the street (the very large seagull population has a strong incentive to hang out here) and random litter. A few months ago, on a ten minute walk home from a park with my daughter, I took over 30 pictures of the litter we encountered just for the hell of it, sort of an attempt to rigorously document my anecdotal impressions of the place having lived here for nine years. It wasn’t an uplifting exercise (but the daughter got a kick out of it).

In addition to the sublime negative marketing campaign, “Other reported options include making it tougher for EU migrants to access public services. Another is to deport those who move to Britain but do not find work within three months.” Unless Romania and Bulgaria have additional limitations imposed upon them as part of their accession to the EU, I doubt either are legal. (UPDATE: according to commenter Lurker, the economically viable unemployed can be deported).  Of course, there’s also the arrogance of it all. Why Britain and not, say, Germany? The Netherlands? France? Or just about anywhere in the EU that’s affordable, with a functioning public transport system, good food, and weather that’s not completely shit?


Cup Shenanigans and Other Soccer Musings

[ 35 ] January 28, 2013 |

One of the (few) joys of following soccer football in Britain are the annual surprises generated by the various and sundry domestic cup competitions. The big news of the past week or so is in the lesser of the two English cups, the (insert sponsor du jour) League Cup, open only to teams in the top four tiers of English club soccer.

As an aside, the term League has lost a lot of its meaning in the past generation or so; with the breakaway of the Premier League, the top flight is technically not part of the old Football League. Over the past 34 seasons the Football Conference, at the fifth tier, acquired an automatic promotion slot to the League (1987), a second slot (2003), and an ever increasing number of clubs operating on a full time status, 19 of 24 in 2011/12.  The Conference is a national league, and in 2004 it acquired its own regional feeder leagues (North and South).  Thus, the distinction between League and “non-League” football has lost some of its meaning.

Nevertheless, the League 2 (fourth tier) side Bradford City will be playing in the League Cup final, against Premiership side Swansea City (the last four words appearing in that order still seems strange).  This is the first time since 1962 that a club from the fourth tier of the English leagues has made the League Cup final, and by my reckoning only the second instance of this happening (as this competition was only inaugurated in 1960/61). On paper at least, Bradford City did not have an easy progression to the final. By definition, every team they faced was in their division or higher, and as it turned out, only one of the six were in their division. En route to the final, they defeated Notts County (3rd tier), Watford (2nd), Burton Albion (4th), Wigan, Arsenal, and Aston Villa; the latter three all top tier sides. I say on paper, because at least for Arsenal (the English side I follow) I know Arsène Wenger’s tacit policy for the League Cup has always been to play the kids. I have no idea what sort of side Wigan played, but given the dreadful season Villa are having, winning the semi-final of this competition had to be a priority (they’re currently 17th in the table, only one point above the relegation zone, and lost in the FA Cup fourth round to second tier side Millwall on Friday.)

While it’s not exceptionally rare for a team outside of the top flight to make the League Cup final (by my quick count it’s happened 15 times since 1961), a fourth tier side in the final is remarkable. Even more remarkable is that if Bradford City defeat Swansea City in the final, they’ll gain entry to the third qualifying round for the 2013-14 Europa League, the lesser of the two European club tournaments. Liverpool, winners of the League Cup in 2012, faced Belorussian Premier League side FC Gomel in the qualifying round of this year’s Europa League (and won 4-0 on aggregate) to give an idea what sort of competition would await a fourth division Bradford City side.  Note, this wouldn’t be their first foray into European competition; in 2000 they had ties against a Lithuanian, Dutch, and Russian club in the defunct Intertoto Cup.  How they qualified I do not know, as they only had a two year run in the Premiership, finishing 17th in 99/00 and relegated in 00/01.

The FA Cup fourth round threw up some surprises this past weekend as well.  Millwall (2nd) beat Aston Villa; MK Dons (3rd) beat relegation bound QPR; Leeds (2nd) beat Spurs; Brentford (3rd) drew with Chelsea, and Arsenal’s youth academy barely got past Brighton (2).  The biggest stories are Oldham Athletic (3) defeating Liverpool, and Luton Town, of the fifth tier Conference, defeating Premiership side Norwich City.  To use a not completely valid baseball analogy, that would be similar to the Eugene Emeralds of the short-season A Northwest League (who used to play in one of the best baseball venues ever, Civic Stadium) defeating the San Francisco Giants.

I’d rather not discuss St Mirren 3-2 Celtic in the Scottish League Cup semi-final, however.

Britain and the European Union, belatedly

[ 54 ] January 26, 2013 |

On Wednesday, Prime Minister David Cameron managed to finally deliver a speech that half the Conservative Party has wanted delivered for decades: at some point following the next Parliamentary election due no later than the Spring of 2015, there will be a referendum asking whether or not Britain should remain in the EU.  A referendum is expected in 2016 or 2017.

When this speech was first mooted, towards the beginning of this month, most of Europe and several business interests in the UK (e.g. Roger Carr, head of the CBI, Sir Richard Branson, and others; post-speech the reaction was more divided) came out in opposition to Cameron’s desire to have the British (yet again) renegotiate its relationship with Brussels.  What really made news here in the UK, however, was the US Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, Phillip Gordon, explicitly warning the British to not screw up their membership in the EU.  It made enough of an impression that BBC Radio Devon wanted to do an interview about it, and as I seem to be their go-to-guy for all things American, I got the call.

They had three general questions specifically about the State Department’s remarks.  First, why is the US offering such advice?  I pointed out that official diplomatic meddling in domestic affairs is rare, but Gordon had explicitly answered this question: “this is in America’s interests” for the UK to remain a key member of the EU.  I elaborated by suggesting that the US can use the British as a back door to influence EU policy by proxy.  Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg agrees.  To paraphrase, Clegg asserted that a UK firmly in the European Union is “more valuable” to the United States.

The second question area was whether or not Britain should take the advice of the United States.  My response was an unequivocal yes, and for reasons beyond the value of my British passport once I finally plunk down the £850 required for a citizenship application.

The third topic was which relationship should the UK prioritise, Europe or the United States.  I said that this was the wrong question to ask (in not so many words), but that the real decision is between the UK’s relationship with Europe or their relationship with the Conservative Party.  The Shadow Foreign Secretary would say the same thing: “the real question is the European Union vs. the Interests of the Conservative Party”.

The European Union causes Cameron two political problems, one endogenous and one exogenous to the Tories.  The former is the constant struggle within the Conservative Party itself on the question of Europe (a question that might confuse the outside observer as the UK joined the EEC 40 years ago under a Conservative government, and this membership survived a referendum in 1975).  This division hasn’t helped any of the Tory PMs since joining, and largely defined John Major’s tenure.  Beyond the confines of the Conservative Party, the growing electoral strength of the United Kingdom Independence Party worries (needlessly in my assessment) the Tories.  Cameron hopes to both quell internal debate and stem the perceived hemorrhaging of support to UKIP by throwing both constituencies a bone.

Cameron suggested that the referendum would be preceded by a wide ranging renegotiating of Britain’s relationship with Europe, and the operation of the European Union writ large.  The latter is with near certainty not going to happen any time soon.  The EU spent most of the last decade negotiating and presenting to (some) voters a new constitution, which failed in 2005 to be refashioned as the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007.  Currently, the EU, specifically the Eurozone, is struggling with the incentives created by having a single currency and monetary policy without having a common fiscal policy.  Reassessing the entire institutional structure and operation is not going to be a priority for the other 26 member states of the union.  Furthermore, Britain already has a unique status within the EU, with the range of opt-outs from European policy beyond not being a member of either the Euro or the Schengen Agreement, and the famous “rebate” from its financial responsibilities to Brussels negotiated by Margaret Thatcher.  Supranational institutions don’t work very well À la carte, yet the ideal relationship for the Conservative Party and a large segment of the British (or just English and Welsh) population is a European Union that begins and ends with the open, free market.

I was asked for a prediction on who would win such a referendum.  I predicted that it would never take place.  The referendum is scheduled for after the next Parliamentary election.  Labour has led in the polls for 22 of the last 24 months, and the current snapshot has C32/L41/LD11 for a 96 seat Labour majority.  Obviously these numbers are not solidly predictive of what would happen in the Spring of 2015, but the Conservatives have a lot of ground to make up if they are to win the outright majority necessary for triggering this referendum.  Achieving this majority is even less likely seeing as how boundary changes for Westminster constituencies are almost certainly not going to be enacted prior to the next election.  The map changes have been largely estimated to help the Conservative cause.

So what’s this all about, then?  I agree with Simon Usherwood, writing over at the LSE blog, that this is a largely political exercise; “As such, it is not going to satisfy most people, since it looks a bit too much like what it is: a fudge and can-kicking.”

Random British Blogging: Speech, the Royals, & NI

[ 40 ] January 18, 2013 |

The House of Lords comes to the rescue of the “proud tradition of free speech” in Britain, as the non-sequitors continue to leap from my keyboard.  And just what did the House of Lords do, one might ask?

They stripped the crime of uttering “insulting” words from Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act.  This only leaves threatening or abusive words remaining in the criminal category.  Such cutting edge legislating has not gone without its critics, of course:

The view expressed by many in the police is that Section 5 including the word insulting is a valuable tool in helping them keep the peace and maintain public order.

“Now there’s always a careful balance to be struck between protecting our proud tradition of free speech and taking action against those who cause widespread offence with their actions.”

To my mind, you don’t have a proud tradition of free speech if uttering insulting words could be a criminal act.

Apparently the Royals still enjoy an informal (?) pre-clearance power over some pending legislation:

The new laws that were required to receive the seal of approval from the Queen or Prince Charles cover issues from higher education and paternity pay to identity cards and child maintenance.

In one instance the Queen completely vetoed the Military Actions Against Iraq Bill in 1999, a private member’s bill that sought to transfer the power to authorise military strikes against Iraq from the monarch to parliament.

A constitutional lawyer quoted in the Guardian article referred to this as the Royals’ “nuclear deterrent”.  I know, constitutionally, that the Queen could refuse royal assent to a parliamentary bill at her pleasure, but this hasn’t been done since 1708, nor has it been so much as considered since George V, at least twice, but not since 1914.

It seems to me as though this could be construed as declining Assent through the back door, without the inevitable backlash if done so publicly and formally.  However, I’m far removed from claiming an understanding of the British Constitution, a situation only made more difficult because there isn’t one.

Finally, loyalists in Belfast are pissed off because the city hall no longer flies the British flag each and every day.  The initial expected expression of loyalist dissatisfaction hasn’t ebbed, six weeks on.  The Economist article gamely attempts to distinguish between political and cultural expression, arguing that this is the latter (hence more dangerous).

Of course, here on what passes for the mainland in the UK, it’s unusual for a local council to fly the Union flag each and every single day (it’s not British tradition, according to the Royal College of Arms).  Sinn Fein and the SDLP wanted to eliminate the flag altogether,and without the intervention of the non-sectarian Alliance Party’s amendment (for flying it only on ‘designated days’) it wouldn’t be flying at all. Unionist and loyalist “thugs” have taken to threatening members of the Alliance Party for voting on this compromise, to the point where the Alliance Party felt the need to issue an FAQ on the issue.

At least it’s not only the tea-party wing of the Republicans who believe compromise to be anathema to a functioning democracy.

Republicans Rigging 2016 Redux

[ 73 ] January 17, 2013 |

Erik beat me to the punch. See also this on the call for red controlled blue states to monkey with the distribution of Electoral College votes to suit the Republican nominee. I guess if you lose the popular vote by nearly 4% nationally, even with your best attempt at voter suppression in place, you have to get creative in your brazenness.

Erik covers a lot of solid ground, but there’s another unintended consequence worth mentioning. The following table is from a lecture I give on the Electoral College.  I didn’t work these figures up myself; I believe the source is Bowler and Donovan Reforming the Republic (2004).  The first four columns are self explanatory. The fifth column is how the EC vote would be distributed if all 50 states had been using the Congressional district approach (WTA simply stands for ‘winner take all’), with the two EV votes due to Senate representation given to the overall state winner.  The sixth column shows how the votes would have been distributed if all 50 states went with the PR model.

The red figures represent an election that fails to hit the magic number of 270 votes, and is thus thrown to the House.  Under an Electoral College allocated by PR, the 1960, 1968, 1992, 1996, and 2000 elections would have been decided by the House.  Strangely, 1976 results in a 269-269 tie under the district plan.  Regardless, PR sends the election to the House in five of 11 elections between 1960 and 2000, while even the CD plan results in the House deciding the 1976 election.

I don’t like the Electoral College, at all, but most proposals that retain the underlying logic of the Electoral College increase the probability of throwing the election to the House. Furthermore, a CD based system is vulnerable to gerrymandering. Given that there’s only a vanishingly small chance that an amendment to the Constitution would pass ditching the EC entirely, any reform must retain the logic and structure of the EC.

After NE-2 went for Obama in 2008 (with its one Electoral College vote), a bill was introduced in the Nebraska legislature to scrap the district system, of course, because Democrats might benefit from it in the future.  It died in committee, and was unpopular statewide. Of course, if the entire state goes blue, it must be OK.

Low Hanging Fruit of the Day: Sepp Blatter

[ 73 ] December 31, 2012 |

Blatter is critical of the MLS.  To wit:

But don’t forget that soccer — as they call football there — is the most popular game in the youth. It’s not American football or baseball; it is soccer. But there is no very strong professional league. There have just the M.L.S. But they have not these professional leagues that are recognized by the American society.

It is a question of time. I thought, when we had the World Cup in 1994. … But we are now in 2012 — it’s been 18 years — it should have been done now. But they are still struggling.

Consistent with previous form, Blatter is wrong. The MLS ranked eighth in Association Football leagues in average attendance according to most recent data. In a broader table of association football attendances, the MLS doesn’t look too bad:

1 Germany 45,179
2 England 34,601
3 Spain 30,275
4 Mexico 25,434
5 Italy 23,459
6 Netherlands 19,538
7 France 18,869
8 USA 18,807
9 China 18,740
10 Argentina 18,165
11 England II 17,738
12 Japan 17,566
13 Germany II 17,266
14 Brazil 14,976
15 Turkey 14,058
16 Scotland 13,861


For a league that has only completed 17 seasons, ranking eighth globally is not bad progress, certainly not “still struggling”.  By this measure, the Scottish league has been struggling since the formation of the SFL in 1890 (oh, hang on . . . ).  Some observations on these data include that the MLS ranks higher in average attendance to both the NHL (17,455 0) and NBA (17,274).  This places the MLS third among professional leagues in the USA (NFL: 67,538; MLB: 30,884), fourth among professional leagues in the US and Canada (Canadian Football League: 28,103), and fourth among all leagues in the US when the “amateur” NCAA Division 1 BCS is included (46,074).

This success has been achieved with a tedious “foreign” sport in a context with the established MLB (74,859,268 total attendance in 2011), NFL (17,124,389 / 67,538), and NCAA BCS (37,411,795 / 46,074), as well as the NHL (21,470,155 / 17,274), and NBA (17,100,861 / 17,274).

There are many ways to spin these numbers to make the MLS appear better or worse than it actually is, including pointing out that the average attendance of 18,807 is skewed by Seattle’s average 43,144 (the next four clubs are LA Galaxy and Montreal at 23K, Houston at 21K, Portland at 20K), but then Seattle’s attendance would rank sixth in the English Premier League’s current season, behind only Man U, Arsenal, Newcastle United, Man City, and Liverpool.  Notably, the entire MLS averages similar to the average for QPR in the current season.  While QPR will likely be relegated, their fans do get to see 19 better clubs come through.

One way we can’t spin these figures, however, is the way the perennially clueless Blatter did.  If the MLS is not a “very strong professional league”, then only the seven above it might qualify for “very strong”.  It’s certainly not “still struggling”.

What if

[ 121 ] December 21, 2012 |

“when Adam Lanza started shooting his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday, he’d been confronted by qualified armed security?” asked Wayne LaPierre earlier today?

We don’t know, to be honest.  But we do know that on April 20, 1999, a “uniformed community resource officer”, in this case a trained Sheriff’s deputy, was armed and on duty at Columbine High School.

An honest to goodness, qualified, “good guy with a gun”.

h/t Billy Bragg


“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Except in Britain.

[ 73 ] December 21, 2012 |

According to most measures, the United Kingdom is a considerably [*] more violent society than the United States.  2.8% of the British experience assault compared with 1.2% of Americans.  Rape, 0.9% to 0.4%. Overall crime, all types, is experienced by 26.4% of the British compared with 21.1% of Americans. 82% of Americans “feel safe” walking in the dark, contrasted with only 70% of the British.

The quintessential “good guy” in this narrative is the police officer.  Yet, the overwhelming majority of British police officers (excepting the Police Service of Northern Ireland, of course) are unarmed by American standards.  They carry the baton, pepper spray, and increasingly (but still relatively rare) taser guns.  Armed Response officers — those with firearms — are highly trained and rare, especially in the more rural constabularies (where there might only be 50; according to the most recent data, there are 146 armed officers covering all of the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary, where I live).

With a rate of violent crime higher than we have in the US, one might think that sworn police officers in Britain would be inclined to be armed.  This leads to a safer society, in the words of the recently wounded by metaphor Wayne LaPierre. However, in Britain, 82% of serving officers, the Police Superintendents Association, and the Association of Chief Police Officers are all opposed to the routine arming of police officers.

The very people responsible for policing a more violent society do not want to be armed.  They put their lives at risk on a daily basis, yet predominantly do not want the ability to shoot back.

The mother of my daughter has been a sworn officer in Britain since 2005.  In LaPierre’s words, one of the “good guys”.  When she joined up, I asked her about the whole quaint unarmed thing.  She didn’t want a gun then, nor following the deaths of PC Sharon Beshenivsky, shot responding to a robbery in 2005, or Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes, both shot this past September, nor the five other fatalities on duty (two shot, one stabbed, one ran over by a car, and one who collapsed during a particularly violent arrest) between Beshenivsky in 2005 and Bone and Hughes in September 2012.

She, and the overwhelming majority of British police officers, believe the fewer firearms in circulation, the safer the society.  There are a lot of “bad guys with guns” in Britain — 21,521 crimes were committed with guns in the UK in 2007 according to the Home Office — and it is a more violent society, but the good guys don’t feel the need to have more good guys with guns.

Any NRA member with more than a handful of neurons to rub together should immediately leap on the causal direction argument in the above: perhaps Britain is a more violent society than the United States precisely because the gun control laws are so strict? We see more random beatings following Friday and Saturday nights because the intoxicated perpetrators don’t have to fear being shot in response?

There is, however, one rate statistic where the US overwhelmingly wins: homicide.

According to these data, in one year the US had 9146 homicides by firearm, England and Wales, 41.  60% of all homicides in the US were by firearm, 6.6% in England and Wales.  This resolves to 15,243 total homicides in the US, 621 in the UK.  The firearm-assisted homicide rate per 100,000 in the US is 2.97; only 0.07 in England and Wales.

If Britain is a more violent society in general because there are fewer guns about, shouldn’t there likewise be far fewer homicides in the US as the US scores safer in virtually every other violent crime metric?

I think we know the answer to this.  There are more homicides in the United States because there’s far greater opportunity.  But then facts and logic can be awkward if they are inconsistent with your position fetish.  Why else has the NRA successfully pushed Congress to ban the CDC from conducting research into guns and public health, or likewise why did the NRA convince Congress to ban the ATF from releasing gun crime trace data?

[*] yes, I know that’s from a pro “arm everybody and their teachers” blog.

There’s a Reason We No Longer Live in the Fucking Medieval Age.

[ 217 ] December 15, 2012 |

It took less than 24 hours, but the NRA-sponsored argument to “arm the teachers!” is being field-tested, as noted by Erik, and as illustrated in a charming graphic, circulating on facebook, extolling the virtues of a “staff heavily armed and trained . . . any attempt to harm the children will be met with deadly force”.

Ultimately, such an asinine, idiotic argument serves to defend a mythic mis-interpretation of our 2nd Amendment rights.  So let’s talk about the rights that we do have, or should have, in a modern society.

Sorry, assholes, but my six year old daughter has more of a right to attend her fucking elementary school without fear. Her teacher has the right to concentrate on excellence in pedagogy and not in SWAT tactics. I have the right as a university professor to assume that when the door to my lecture hall opens, as it does five times per hour, it’s another late student, and not my long awaited chance to unholster the Glock I’m packing in order to pop off a couple untrained rounds in playing hero.

When I go to a shopping mall in Clackamas County, where I live while in Oregon (I’m there now, indeed I arrived at PDX just a couple hours after the now forgotten Clackamas Town Center shooting on Tuesday), I have the right to not worry about not only some over-armed deranged soul taking out his frustrations and insecurities and self-perceived failures on the general population, but likewise I shouldn’t have to wonder how many of my fellow shoppers are armed, untrained, yet itching for the chance for a righteous firefight, especially after three post work beers.  Because nothing makes me feel safer than eight or ten well meaning “good guys” trying to take out the one lunatic against the backdrop of 10,000 holiday shoppers.

Our response, as a society, should be to examine the multitude of reasons why these events kick off.  One thing should be perfectly fucking clear, however.  Introduce readily available firearms, especially those that no recreational pursuit requires, the efficiency of the slaughter increases tremendously.  As we all know, on the same day as Sandy Hook, CT, a similar rampage happened in China.  The lunatic in China was armed with only a knife, not two side arms and an AR4 .223.

And holy crap!  No children in China died.  22 wounded.  Nine went to hospital, two in serious condition.

Did I mention that no children died in China?

The response of a significant component of our population in the United States is to arm the teachers, not question the underlying conditions and assumptions that brought us here.  I’m not at all sorry when I say this: that’s fucking ridiculous.

I don’t mind guns, I’ve liked hunting, I’ve been known to be a pretty decent shot, but the asinine line “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is bullshit.

Guns make the killing a hell of a lot more efficient.

And I’m thankful that my six year old daughter goes to school in England, because if “arm the teachers!” is the best that we can do here, we’ve blown right past the Gilded Age and are plowing head on to a return to medieval times.

2014 House Prospects

[ 21 ] December 4, 2012 |

I was somewhat surprised that a majority of the handful of comments responding to my post debunking the “six year itch” were far more interested in the general prospects for the Democrats in the 2014 House elections, and of those, most were upbeat.  In general, the hopeful comments, as well as the sheer delusional optimism of the TDS post that I linked, rely not on evidence or data, but predominantly faith.  To wit, from the TDS post:

Democrats ought to be able to pick up 17 Republican seats with a combination of better candidates, state-of-the-art micro-targeting and a more focused and energetic GOTV program targeting pro-Democratic constituencies in those districts – small though they may be. There should be an equally vigorous ‘front porch’ campaign to sway persuadable voters. Further, if Democrats can do as well as we have with 7.9 percent unemployment, an improving economy should boost our chances in ’14.

Ignoring both history and the turnout effect for the moment, there are a range of potential positives.  The Democrats currently have a considerable edge in GOTV and micro-targeting, and unlike following 2008, this organization might remain active for 2010.  Furthermore, the Republicans are unlikely to catch up in time for 2014.  Assuming a satisfactory negotiation to the fiscal cliff, structural conditions should benefit the Democrats in 2014.  Combine this with the bedding in of the PPACA and other domestic initiatives, Democrats can run on a positive platform of accomplishment and a growing economy, thus resulting in the possibility of a strong tailwind.  Finally, as with the Democrats in the House following 2006 and 2008, the Republicans might be at their high water mark in terms of viability in House seats with the 113th Congress.

However, let’s examine some of the negatives.  First, while “Too much focus on historical precedent is debilitating. History is never made by entertaining defeatist memes or those who are daunted by precedent.” is a nice sentiment, that’s precisely what it is — sentiment. A Democratic gain of 17 seats would nearly double the existing record of the past 20 midterms, which remains the nine seats gained by Democrats in 1934.  Even gaining seats, however few, is rare.  The historical reality is that of the 20 midterm elections dating back to 1934, the incumbent party has only gained seats in three: 1934, 1998, and 2002.  I’m sympathetic to the counter argument that each election is at least partially influenced by its unique historical context, but each of the three incumbent positive elections are notable precisely for such reasons: 1934 has been characterised as a referendum on FDR’s New Deal, 1998 a backlash against the possible impeachment of Clinton, and 2002 a ‘rally around the flag’ effect.  While it’s not unimaginable for 2014 to have such an atypical historical context of its own, I don’t think that a growing economy and a sudden appreciation for Obama’s 2009-10 domestic accomplishments measure up to the events of 1934, 98, or 2002.

Then there’s turnout.  Following 2010, I argued in public lectures and other forums that this wasn’t the repudiation of the Obama agenda nor did it doom Obama’s re-election, as the British media strongly suggested, but that it was because of turnout.  It was simply a different electorate who participated.  Turnout always declines in mid term elections.  When turnout declines, it effects different socioeconomic categories at different rates.  Those categories that get hit the most are categories that strongly supported Obama in 2008 (and 2012).  Indeed, I argued this very point here on LGM following a handful of special elections in 2009:

It wasn’t a newly energized base that swung the races; rather it was a combination of independents breaking R and a good chunk of the “Obama coalition” staying home.  Which we knew they would all along. Minorities, the young, the less wealthy, new voters do tend to stay home in odd years (and while I anticipate an uptick in turnout amongst these groups in 2010, it won’t come near the level of 2008). These were the demographic categories that largely put Obama (way) over the top in 2008.

Limited to the two-party vote, national turnout in 2010 House elections was 71.4% of turnout in 2008 House elections.  (Some ballot drop-off does occur: in 2008, 129,391,711 votes were cast for either Obama or McCain, while only 116,841,071 for D or R House candidates; I use the latter figure when calculating the difference in House election turnout between 2008 and 2010; expanded to all votes, roughly two million votes were cast for third-party presidential candidates, while 3.5 million were cast for third-party House candidates.)  As turnout decline has systematic effects that work against Democratic candidates at present, it would take a considerable GOTV operation, coupled with ideal structural conditions, tail winds approaching a jet stream, to create conditions where Democrats can gain seats in 2014.  A historical electoral context in league with 1934, 1998, or 2002 wouldn’t hurt.

However, this is all hoping borderline assuming that each of these attributes of the 2014 election will break the Democrats’ way.  It’s possible that the structural conditions of the election do not improve from 2012 or 2010 for a variety of reasons.; indeed, there’s evidence today to suggest a growth rate in the 4th quarter of only 0.8%, with one estimate as low as 0.2% for the entire year.   A settlement to the fiscal cliff should shield the Republicans (at present a Pew poll indicates 53% would blame Republicans, only 27% the Administration, for a failure of negotiations) but any deal will involve large spending cuts which are more than less likely to hurt the economy at the margins in the short term.  Finally, an atypical historical context can go in either direction.

Then there’s the gerrymandering.  The Republicans did an outstanding job of that following the 2010 census.  The table below lists the national results as well as four states: Pennsylvania, Texas, California, and Ohio, comparing the vote percentages and seat percentages in each, from the 2012 House elections:

Nationally, the Republicans received a boost of 4 points in translating votes into seats.  At the state level, they gained over 20 points in both Pennsylvania and Ohio, a surprisingly restrained eight points in Texas, and of course lost 11 points in California.  Out of curiosity, these are the only four I’ve looked at so far, so I’m wondering if there are others worth mentioning?

Even if structural conditions are solid and a tailwind is at the back of the Democratic Party in 2014, lower turnout, the historical penalty suffered by the incumbent party, and the Repbulicans’ built-in advantage of redistricting for the next ten years makes aspirations of gaining seats, let alone reclaiming the majority, a wildly optimistic expectation.  Simply engaging a GOTV operation of similar size and efficacy to 2012 would stretch the budget for a mid term election, and even then the return on investment probably won’t be as impressive considering that it’s more difficult to persuade casual voters to get motivated for a mere Congressional election.

In other words, while I hope I’m very wrong, I’m not optimistic.

The Six Year Itch? Whatever.

[ 23 ] November 28, 2012 |

Not too soon, the campaign season will commence again, with a focus on the Congressional elections of 2014.  In the smattering of stories that I’ve read in the past two weeks about this upcoming festival of joy, a term that I was only vaguely aware of keeps popping up, the six year itch.  However loosely defined, six years removed from his (or, presumably someday her) first election, the incumbent President’s party is apparently doomed to suffer atypically huge defeats in these mid term House elections.  On paper, this does not inspire confidence for the Democrats come 2014.  To quote from the Politico article linked above:

The party controlling the White House during a president’s sixth year in office has lost seats in every midterm election but one since 1918, when Woodrow Wilson occupied the Oval Office. And the setbacks typically aren’t small: The average loss in these elections was 30 seats.

Incumbent Presidents tend to suffer losses in damn near every mid term election for whatever reason (see the figure below), so this sentence could be restated as “the party controlling the White House has lost seats in every midterm election but three since 1918 . . .”.  Given the relatively small sample size, this really doesn’t tell us anything.  A better way of looking at the question involves comparing the mean seat loss for the incumbent party in bog standard boring midterm years, and the hypothesized qualitatively different six-year itch years.  During such years, apparently “Anger, exhaustion and frustration tend to set in among voters as presidents approach the last leg of their final term. It happened to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1938 when voters recoiled at his New Deal reforms. ”  Of course, FDR would be re-elected in 1940, so that anger must have dissipated quickly.



In comparing the means between these two types of midterm elections, we have to settle on a measure of what is, and is not, a six-year itch election.  In terms of consistency, wikipedia lets us down; the brief entry on this topic includes 1974, by which time Ford had replaced Nixon, yet inexplicably overlooks 1998, possibly because it doesn’t fit the model.  In my analysis, I’ve settled on not settling on defining a clear measure.  Instead, I’ve chosen to start with a strict definition, and then progressively loosen the parameters of this six-year itch.  The above figure distinguishes such elections with a solid black border, and additional candidates have a thin border.


The table below compares the average seat loss for an incumbent party in standard (non-SYI) and SYI elections using five different measures.  A strict measure of SYI does what it says on the tin: a President must be in office at the time of the election six years from his first election.  From 1932 (20 total midterm elections), this limits us to five elections: 1938, 1958, 1986, 1998, and 2006.



Using a strict definition, there is no appreciable difference in average seat loss by the incumbent Presidential party in such elections.  The second column adds 1950 to the mix; one might argue that while Truman was not elected President in 1944, he did assume the office less than three months following the January 1945 inauguration thus giving Truman close to a full term in office prior to the 1948 election, but adding 1950 makes little difference.  The third column adds 1974.  Here, one has to argue that the voters either explicitly associated Ford with Nixon’s sins, considered Ford a mere extension of the Nixon years, or simply hadn’t noticed that Nixon was no longer president.  Given the pounding that Republicans experienced in 1974, this moves the means slightly, but still not convincingly.


Not satisfied?  The fourth column measures the SYI by including both 1942 and 1966.  In the case of the former, theoretically, why should FDR suffer from this phenomenon in 1938, but not even worse four years later?  If there is anything to this, then the itch really must have been festering in the minds of the voters in 1942 (as evidenced by the Democrats having lost 45 seats in that election).  1966 can be included for reasons similar to 1974 — LBJ, at least during 1964, was committed to continuing Kennedy policies in most domestic areas, hence his first “term” can be construed as a simple continuation of the Kennedy administration (which, in terms of names and  faces, it largely was).  Democrats suffered 1942 and 1966, so this does push the means even further apart.  Finally, the fifth column merges all this suspect logic by adding 1946.  Only now, do we see real daylight between the average seat loss of ordinary midterm elections and the special SYI elections.  Incidentally, this is also the only version of the five measures of SYI where the difference of the two means approach statistical significance (p=.086), but a) this assumes a one-tailed t-test, the use of which requires solid a-priori theory to suggest both the presence of a relationship and the direction of the estimate, b) these data are not random probability samples, and c) who cares?


Long story short: it doesn’t appear to exist.  There’s nothing really special about a President’s second midterm election that can not be explained by all the reasons why Presidents generally lose seats in any midterm election.  Visually, the only real pattern in the data illustrated by the figure above that is suggestive of the phenomenon is the period between 1952 and 1978, but for this to work one would have to loosen the definition of the measure such that both 1966 and 1974 merit inclusion.  1958, 66, and 74 do look different, but only one (1958) fits a rigorous definition.


What does this mean for 2014?  Nothing.  The Democrats will probably lose seats in 2014, but we don’t need a manufactured non-phenomenon to tell us that.  Alternatively, we can participate in some hard core wishful thinking and ignore oppressive historical precedent and choose to believe that the Democrats can retake the House in 2014 . . .

Classic George Will. Seriously.

[ 22 ] November 6, 2012 |

Looking through my 1976 copy of The Changing American Voter today, what should I find inside?  This vintage 1976 clipping of a George Will column, warning us sternly about the dangers of allowing voter registration by . . . mail.  Because it would mean a “substantial increase in bureaucracy, and a substantial increase in the opportunity for fraudulent voting.”



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