Thursday, December 31, 2020

Not simple enough

 Once again, I have gotten diverted into another topic.  Yesterday morning, Donald Trump tweeted about a paper by John Lott called "A simple test for vote fraud with absentee ballots in the 2020 Presidential election", which according to Trump "estimates 11,350 absentee votes lost to Trump in Georgia. Another 289,000 'excess (fraudulent) votes' across GA, AZ, MI, NV, PA, and WI."*  Lott is an economist best known for work arguing against gun control.  He's been involved in a number of controversies, but has published extensively in scholarly journals, and I happen to have read one of his papers recently and it seemed solid.  So he's not someone like L. Lin Wood or Sidney Powell who can be dismissed out of hand.  How much of a case does he have?

One obvious point is that his statistical evidence isn't very strong.  He has two separate analyses, and the key estimates in both have p-values of about .07.  He doesn't acknowledge that, and disguises it in various ways, including the classic "statistically significant at the .05 level for a one-tailed test."  There's also a big jump from statistical analysis to conclusions--the abstract speaks of "fraudulent votes" rather than something like "excess votes beyond those predicted by the model."  But could you at least say there's suggestive evidence, something that calls for further investigation?  One analysis, the one about "excess" votes in certain counties in swing states, just isn't convincing in principle.  The model was basically about increase in turnout over 2016, and it appears that the increase was greater in certain counties where fraud had been alleged.  Lott interprets that increase as evidence that there was ballot box stuffing in those counties, but another possibility is that the Democrats just made special efforts to get out the vote in them.  Given that those counties were heavily Democratic and located in states that were expected to be close, that seems very plausible.  The other analysis was more complex.  It involved differences between the distribution of absentee votes and in-person votes in Georgia, comparing Fulton county (Atlanta) to surrounding areas.   Lott argued that it was easier to manipulate or fake absentee votes than regular ones, so fraud would show up as a large discrepancy between different kinds of votes.  For example, suppose that outside of Fulton county, 60% of the in-person votes and 50% of absentee votes were for Trump, and in Fulton county, 40% of the in-person votes and 30% of the absentee votes were for Trump.  Then you'd just say that Trump voters preferred to vote in person, as surveys suggested would happen.  But suppose that in Fulton county, 40% of the in-person votes and only 10% of the absentee ballots were for Trump.  Lott says that would be evidence of fraud (votes being switched, Biden votes manufactured, or Trump votes discarded), on the grounds that "while Democrats were pushing their voters to vote by absentee ballot, there is no reason to expect that rate to differ between two precincts that are next to each other and are similar in terms of their in-person voting support and their demographics." And I can't immediately think of a reason why it would, so this approach seems more promising.  

But rather than just computing differences between absentee and in-person votes, he regressed the Trump share of absentee votes on the Trump share of in-person votes plus a dummy variable for Fulton county.  The problem with doing that is that there is no sense in which the in-person share is a cause of, or even prior to, the absentee share (or vice-versa)--they are just two variables that are correlated with each other.  In this situation,  if the Trump share of the vote is lower in Fulton county, then the Fulton county variable is in effect correlated with the error term in the regression, producing spurious results.**  Lott didn't make his data available, but a look at his regression estimates suggests that this misspecification accounts for his "Fulton county effect."

I include a little simulation at the end, in which both in-person and absentee votes are a function of a precinct-level propensity to support Trump plus a random error term, and "Fulton county" precincts have a lower propensity to vote for Trump.  If you do a regression with a Fulton county dummy, it is highly significant, but if you compute the gap between absentee and in-person ballots, it is the same in and out of "Fulton county."

*The phrase "excess (fraudulent) votes" doesn't appear in Lott's paper, although "excess votes" and "fraudulent votes" do.  

**I'm simplifying, because he looks at differences between pairs of precincts, but the basic point remains the same.

> propensity<-c(4000:7000)/100
> min(propensity)
[1] 40
> length(propensity)
[1] 3001
> person<-propensity+3*rnorm(3001)
> absent<-propensity-10+3*rnorm(3001)
> fulton<-propensity<50
> m1<-lm(absent~person)
> summary(m1)

lm(formula = absent ~ person)

    Min      1Q  Median      3Q     Max
-14.191  -2.785   0.017   2.793  14.553

             Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|)    
(Intercept) -3.736393   0.459804  -8.126 6.41e-16 ***
person       0.886926   0.008248 107.530  < 2e-16 ***
Signif. codes:  0 ‘***’ 0.001 ‘**’ 0.01 ‘*’ 0.05 ‘.’ 0.1 ‘ ’ 1

Residual standard error: 4.15 on 2999 degrees of freedom
Multiple R-squared:  0.794,     Adjusted R-squared:  0.794
F-statistic: 1.156e+04 on 1 and 2999 DF,  p-value: < 2.2e-16

> m2<-lm(absent~person+fulton)
> summary(m2)

lm(formula = absent ~ person + fulton)

     Min       1Q   Median       3Q      Max
-12.6099  -2.6932   0.0678   2.6976  14.7024

            Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|)    
(Intercept)  6.63930    0.74541   8.907   <2e-16 ***
person       0.72331    0.01234  58.621   <2e-16 ***
fultonTRUE  -4.13916    0.24041 -17.217   <2e-16 ***
Signif. codes:  0 ‘***’ 0.001 ‘**’ 0.01 ‘*’ 0.05 ‘.’ 0.1 ‘ ’ 1

Residual standard error: 3.959 on 2998 degrees of freedom
Multiple R-squared:  0.8126,    Adjusted R-squared:  0.8125
F-statistic:  6499 on 2 and 2998 DF,  p-value: < 2.2e-16

> gap<-absent-person
> t.test(gap~fulton)

        Welch Two Sample t-test

data:  gap by fulton
t = -0.078946, df = 1987.1, p-value = 0.9371
alternative hypothesis: true difference in means is not equal to 0
95 percent confidence interval:
 -0.3386609  0.3124506
sample estimates:
mean in group FALSE  mean in group TRUE
          -9.958066           -9.944960


Sunday, December 27, 2020

Having eyes, see ye not?

 I am eventually going to get around to a post on public opinion about the 2000 election controversy--I've found some interesting things.  But I was interrupted by running across a good example of something I've discussed before (most recently here)--a tendency to treat "elites" as more or less identical to the educated middle class.  Tim Carney writes "It should be obvious to everyone with eyes that today’s Democratic Party is the party of the elite. All of the wealthiest congressional districts are represented by Democrats. Joe Biden beat Donald Trump mostly by outperforming in upper-middle-class white suburbs. The GOP’s strongest constituency is whites without a college degree. A quick glance at the early data suggest Republicans’ biggest gains are among non-whites without a college degree."  The striking thing about that passage is that he provides four pieces of evidence and none of them support his claim.  Congressional districts are pretty big, averaging about 800,000 people, so even the richest ones are not exclusively upper-class.  And I've shown that at the county level, the presence of rich people seems to push other people towards the Democrats.  So the relationship between average income and Democratic vote is interesting, but doesn't tell us that people with high incomes voted Democratic.  That's a subtle point, but the next three clearly don't involve elites.   You could say that that we can extrapolate, so if people of moderately high social standing are more Democratic than people of low social standing, then people with very high social standing will be even more Democratic.  However, you can't put much faith in extrapolations that go way outside of the observed data; moreover, the relationship between social standing and voting is complicated.  At one time, it was fairly accurate to simply say that people who ranked higher were more Democratic, but now it depends on what characteristic you're talking about: more education is associated with support for the Democrats and higher income with support for the Republicans.  

Since elites are by definition a small minority, there's not much survey evidence on elite opinions, but one survey of high-income people in the Chicago area indicated that they were moderately conservative on economic issues.  There are also some statistics on political donations--in 2020, 62% of people who donated $100,000 or more gave to Republicans.  So the limited evidence available suggests that economic elites lean Republican.   But a lot of conservatives seem to want to believe that elites support Democrats, so they don't need evidence--it's just "obvious."  This leads to some data--from 1987 to 1996 several CBS/NY Times surveys asked "in general, do you think that the [Democratic/Republican] Party favors the rich, favors the middle class, favors the poor, or does it treat them all the same."  After a long gap, a CBS News survey asked the question again in 2017.  Here's what people who identified as Republicans said about the Republican party:

                1987            1996            2017

Rich            30%            31%            12%

Middle        14%            20%            24%

Poor            0%                3%                2%

Same          50%            43%               56%

and about the Democrats:


               1987            1996            2017

Rich            18%            24%            34%

Middle        13%            16%               6%

Poor            25%             36%             26%

Same          36%            17%               22%


So among Republicans, there was a shift away from seeing their party as favoring the rich and towards seeing the Democrats as favoring the rich.  In 1987, more Republicans thought that the Republican party favored the rich than thought the Democrats did (30% to 18%)--in 2017, it was reversed (12% to 34%),  Democrats' perceptions of the parties, in contrast, didn't change--at all three times, over 80% thought that the Republicans favored the rich, and about 75% thought that the Democrats favored the middle class or treated them all the same.   Independents shifted towards seeing both parties as more interested in the rich--going from 54% to 63% on the Republicans and 14% to 36% on the Democrats. 

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion  Research]

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Continued detour

 Another question was asked just after the 2008 and 2016 elections:  "If you had to choose, would you rather see Barack Obama (as president) and the Democrats in Congress mostly implement Democratic policies and pay little attention to the positions taken by the Republican leaders in Congress, or would you rather see Obama and the Democrats in Congress include Republican policies in any legislation that they pass?" and the corresponding question with Donald Trump as president and the Republicans and Democrats switching places.  The percent choosing "pay little attention":


                                            2008                2016

President's party                    25%                40%

Opposition party                     2%                  3%

Independent                            7%                11%

Republican support in 2016 for the "pay little attention" opinion was considerably higher than Democratic support in 2008, even thought Trump had barely scraped by while Obama had won a solid victory.  Nevertheless, a majority of Republicans favored the "include Democratic policies" option.  This illustrates two points:

1.  Bipartisanship is popular with the public, even in a time of high polarization.

2.  The Democrats seem to be more identified with bipartisanship. I don't think that this has always been the case--it seems to shift depending on the candidate and the circumstances--but it's been that way in recent years.  As the figures above show, it is a strong appeal.  However, its limitation is that an opposition party can frustrate it, even if they don't have a majority--if they remain united in opposition, people won't think that they're being included.  A cynic might suspect that Republican willingness to play along with Trump's claims of voter fraud is partly because they think it will damage Joe Biden's efforts to establish an image of bipartisanship and bringing people together.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Tuesday, December 22, 2020


 I was doing a post about opinions on the 2000 election, when I was diverted by a question on one of the surveys.  "Do you think the country is -- or is not -- more deeply divided this year on the major issues facing the country than it has been in the past several years?"  That question was first asked in December 2000, just after the Supreme Court decision to stop the recount, and repeated a number of times, most recently in 2018.  The percent saying that the country was more deeply divided:

Date points are labelled with the name of the President (starting from election day rather than inauguration).  The lowest perceived division was right after Obama's election.  By 2013, however, it had surpassed the level Bush reached in early 2005 (unfortunately in wasn't asked again under Bush).  Then it reached a new high just after Trump was elected.  It had fallen a bit by 2018, but was still higher than the highest levels under Obama.  The obvious thing to do next would be to break it down by partisanship, and I will do that in a future post.  But I was diverted again by a question in one of the other surveys, asked just after the 2004 election:  "Which comes closer to your view--because the election was so close, George W. Bush should emphasize programs that both parties support or because he won a majority of the votes, George W. Bush has a mandate to advance the Republican agenda?"  They asked the same question about Barack Obama and the Democratic agenda in 2012, and in 2016 asked a similar question about Donald Trump, "Since Donald Trump didn't win the popular vote, his agenda should emphasize programs that attract those who voted for other candidates; since Donald Trump won the presidency, he has a mandate to advance the agenda that his supporters favor."  The results

             Both parties       Mandate

Bush               63%            30%

Bush               63%            29%

Bush               58%            36%

Obama            74%            17%

Trump             53%            40%


If you break it down by party (using only the first Bush survey), the percent choosing "mandate":

                                         Bush                Obama            Trump

Own party                        42%                30%                65%

Opposite party                 22%                10%                16%   

Independent                     23%                12%                41%

So there was an increase of polarization between Bush and Trump (own party more likely to say he had a mandate, opposite party less), and also a difference between Obama and the two Republicans (everyone less likely to say "mandate" with Obama).  With only one Democratic winner, you can't say whether the preference for bipartisanship was specific to Obama or perhaps true of Democrats more generally.  Hopefully the question has been asked since the 2020 election.  In any case, the fact that 65% of Republicans chose "had a mandate" over "emphasize programs that attract those who voted for other candidates" after Trump had lost the popular vote in 2016 is striking.   

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Thursday, December 17, 2020


In 1960, John F. Kennedy won Illinois by less than 10,000 votes.  He would have had an Electoral College majority even without Illinois, but he won Missouri by about 10,000 and New Jersey by only about 20,000, and the margins were even smaller in several smaller states.  So there are several ways he could have lost the election given small shifts in votes.  Unsurprisingly, there were charges that the election had been stolen.  Richard Nixon and the Republican party leadership accepted the results, but there were some legal challenges by private citizens and local officials.  The Gallup Poll didn't ask any questions about allegations of fraud, but they did have an allusion to the controversy just before the Electoral College vote:  "Suppose that Kennedy is unable to get a majority of votes in the Electoral College when it meets December 19 and the question of who is to be President has to be turned over to the House of Representatives.  Which man would you like to have the House declare the winner--Kennedy or Nixon?"*  55% said Kennedy, 35% Nixon, 9% don't know.  Supposing that 50% voted for Kennedy and 50% Nixon (which was approximately true in the population, but I don't know about recalled vote in this sample), and all the Kennedy voters said it should be Kennedy, that would mean that 70% of the Nixon voters said Nixon, 10% Kennedy, and 18% were unsure.  So only a small minority went with the principle that it should select the winner of the popular vote rather than the candidate they preferred.  On the other hand, you could say that almost 30% of Nixon voters didn't just stick with their man.  Also, Kennedy's lead in the popular vote was very small (plus, there's a complicated question of how you count the vote in Alabama, where some Democratic electors were pledged to Kennedy and other's were not).

So this example suggests that the principle that whatever was good for your candidate was right was widely followed, even at a time when party differences were small.  However, I think the most interesting thing is that there were no survey questions about the allegations of voter fraud.  Gallup had asked a question on the issue in 1959, so it would seem to have been an excellent opportunity to repeat it (they did, a few years later).  The omission doesn't seem to have been because there was a lot of other stuff going on in the news--the December survey included a question on "what is your favorite season of the year." So my guess is that they just regarded it as inappropriate under the circumstances. 

The 1968 and 1976 elections were close, but I don't think that there were any significant claims of fraud.  The next disputed election was 2000, when the issue wasn't fraud, but how long the counting and recounting should continue.  I'll write about opinions on that election that in a future post. 

*Apparently there was an effort to get some southern Democrats to defect so that they could deny Kennedy a majority and then bargain with the candidates to drop any civil rights programs. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

A long footnote

 I published a piece in the Washington Post the other day on class differences in opinions about covid restrictions, or more exactly the lack of clear class differences.  When I last checked, there were almost 500 comments, but most of them didn't seem to be about the article itself--they were about what people thought of the restrictions, or the general wisdom of Republicans and Democrats.  I did notice one good question though--the headline referred to "elites," and I quoted Peggy Noonan as saying "we see the professionals on one side … and regular people on the other," while the article compared people with and without a college degree.  The commentator wondered why having a college degree disqualified you from being a  "regular person"--something like 35% of American adults are college graduates, so it's not a rare distinction.  This is something that has struck me too.  A few more quotes from Noonan, in piece that got a lot of attention (she got a Pulitzer prize for commentary in 2017 and they featured it on the award page):  

"The protected are the accomplished, the secure, the successful—those who have power or access to it. . . . they make public policy and have for some time.

I want to call them the elite to load the rhetorical dice, but let’s stick with the protected.

 They are figures in government, politics and media. They live in nice neighborhoods, safe ones. Their families function, their kids go to good schools, they’ve got some money."

 then near the end:

" This is a terrible feature of our age—that we are governed by protected people who don’t seem to care that much about their unprotected fellow citizens."


"In wise governments the top is attentive to the realities of the lives of normal people, and careful about their anxieties. That’s more or less how America used to be. There didn’t seem to be so much distance between the top and the bottom.

Now it seems the attitude of the top half is: You’re on your own. Get with the program, little racist."

So the "protected" shift from "those with power or access to it" to "the top half."   There's also the juxtaposition of "figures in government, politics, and the media"--a true elite--with people living in "nice neighborhoods, safe ones," having a family that functions and kids that go to good schools--a pretty large part of the population.    

The fact the Pulitzer Prize committee admired this stuff ("beautifully rendered columns that connected readers to the shared virtues of Americans") is interesting, and I'll talk about it  in a later post, but now I'll turn to the data.  I discussed two surveys from October which asked "Which of the following do you think should be the federal government’s priority: limiting the spread of coronavirus, even if it hurts the economy, or restarting the economy, even if it increases the risk to public health?"  There was little difference between the opinions of people with and without a college degree.  I also wrote about a survey from August which asked about specific restrictions, like banning indoor dining or organized youth sports.  There was an educational difference on six of the seven items, with less educated people giving less support to restrictions, although the differences were generally small.  So depending on which questions you looked at, you could say that there was some support for the idea of educational differences, or that there wasn't support.*  In the article, I said that there was no "consistent class difference"; in contrast, with gender, urban/rural residence, and race, the same kind of differences showed up in all surveys.  So you could at least say that class wasn't one of the more important factors.  But if you're specifically interested in educational differences, how can you reconcile these results?  I can think of two possibilities:

1.  Less educated people were more favorable to re-opening in the summer, but the difference disappeared by October.  Conditions were improving in the summer, but getting worse in October.  Views about restrictions are influenced by ideology and partisanship, and those are weaker factors among less educated people, so their opinions might be more influenced by reality.  In that case, class differences could increase, decline, or change direction depending on conditions. 

2.  Although there's no difference on the general question of giving priority to the economy or public health, less educated people are less likely to support specific restrictions.  They might be less accustomed to thinking in terms of tradeoffs, especially tradeoffs involving individual behavior, and more inclined to think that some authority--the government, employers, schools, etc., ought to do what is necessary so that people can safely return to normal activity.  

This is a larger question that applies to things other than covid restrictions. At this point, I don't think there's enough data to choose between these ideas.  

*There was also a survey from late April which suggested that less educated people were a bit more likely to take "extreme" positions--either that existing measures were too strict or not strict enough. 

Monday, December 7, 2020

A conspiracy so vast

 Ross Douthat had a column called "Why do so many Americans think the election was stolen?" which started with a good point:  that a lot of people are inclined to believe in conspiracies.  Moreover, those people aren't concentrated in particular social groups, but are spread pretty broadly throughout the population.  As an example a Gallup survey from 1991, around the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, had the following question:  "Some people have argued that President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew about Japanese plans to bomb Pearl Harbor but did nothing about it because he wanted an excuse to involve the U. S. on the side of the allies in the war.  From what you know or have read, do you agree or disagree with this point of view?"  About 31% agreed, 47% disagreed, and 22% didn't know.  Of course, it's hard to say how many really believed this---probably few had given it thought before they were asked,  but more than half were willing to regard it as a possibility.  There wasn't much relationship to standard demographic and political variables--the only factors that made a clear difference were race (blacks were more likely to agree) and gender (women more likely to say they didn't know).  The survey also happened to have a number of questions about religion--for example, beliefs about evolution and views of the bible.  Although it seems plausible that the psychological factors that affect religious belief would also affect belief in conspiracies, there was little or no relationship.  That is, the belief that FDR knew about plans for the attack were pretty much constant among all kinds of people.

 Douthat's column then got into speculations about why different kinds of conservatives might be willing to believe that the 2020 election was stolen.  Here, I think his explanations are unnecessarily complicated: the reason is simply that some conservative leaders are saying it's true, many others are saying or implying that it's at least a possibility, and very few are saying that it is false.  By leaders, I mean partly media figures but mostly elected officials.  This encourages people who have doubts to speak up and keep the controversy going.  In contrast, after other elections party leaders overwhelmingly dismissed or ignored claims that the election was stolen, so although the idea got significant support in surveys, it wasn't a political force.  For example, Douthat suggest that we "recall the voting-machine theory spun to explain John Kerry’s narrow defeat in 2004." I doubt that many people could recall it--I happened to look it up a couple of weeks ago for a class I was teaching, but had pretty much forgotten about it until then. 

This leads to the question of why Republican politicians are reluctant to abandon Trump, even after he's lost.   One possibility is that they really believe in him.  I doubt that, although of course I don't have any inside knowledge.  A second possibility is that they think "the base" really believes in him, and don't want to antagonize it.  This seems more likely, but Trump ran behind Republicans generally, and I think many Republican politicians must have noticed that.  A third possibility is that they think that Trump will follow the same path as Sarah Palin--fading away after he leaves office and he no longer gets as much media attention.  From that point of view, playing along with him and hoping that the controversy will weaken Joe Biden is a reasonable (if cynical) strategy.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Friday, December 4, 2020

When surveys were young

I've continued to see mentions of the claim that the Republican vote among "minorities" in 2020 was higher than at any time since 1960.  While doing a search to get a sense of just how common this is, I ran across an article from Forbes by Avik Roy disputing that claim.  It included a figure on the Republican vote among blacks, which I reproduce here:

Black support for Republican presidential candidates, 1932-2020

What caught my eye was the first year, 1932--it says that Republicans got 77% of the black vote, far higher than they got in 1936 or any later year.  The first modern survey (the Gallup Poll) didn't begin until 1935, so where did these data come from?  The note says "Joint Center for Political and Economic Affairs," but I couldn't find the relevant report on their web site.  Admittedly I didn't do a thorough search, since I knew they couldn't be the original collector.  A little more searching on the internet gave this, published in the Washington Examiner:  "In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt lost the black vote overwhelmingly, receiving just 21% support from black Americans in Chicago (there were no national polling organizations). . . Yet just four years later, in 1936, the newly established Gallup Poll revealed that FDR had received 76% of the black vote." I found a couple of other references to that survey of Chicago, although none gave any further information, so I'll guess that's the source of the Forbes number too (figuring that third parties got a few percent).  However, even if those numbers for Chicago are reliable, my impression is that there was a lot of local variation in the black vote at that time, so it might have been very different in other cities.  I went back to the Gallup Poll, which regularly asked people how they voted in previous elections.  Unfortunately, they didn't do that in their first few years, so it appears that only one survey asked about 1932.  

The results:

                                   Hoover         FDR         Thomas     Didn't Vote        Too young

Unspecified                    36%           48%            2%              9%                    5%

White                              15%           51%             1%             12%                  21%

"Colored"                        24%          55%             1%             17%                    1%

So black support foe Republican candidate was higher than white support, but considerably lower than support among people whose race wasn't recorded (who were a majority of the sample).  Who were those people?  The early Gallup polls had a variable for economic level, which was coded by inspection:  "average plus," "average," "poor," or "on relief."  Race was recorded only for people who were "poor" or "on relief."  Either they didn't interview blacks who looked like they were middle class, or they classified them as "poor" regardless of their appearance.  I think it was the latter--I seem to remember seeing some early Gallup instructions that said that all black people go in the lower categories.  So we can assume that all the people whose race wasn't recorded are white.  Under that assumption, and limiting it to people who voted for one of the three major candidates in 1932:

                                 Hoover       FDR       Thomas

White                          36%         62%        2%

"Colored"                   30%         68%        2%

That is, in 1932, the black vote was already mostly for the Democrats, although if you control for economic level it was not much different from the white vote.  I should say that there is a good deal of uncertainty, because there were only 71 blacks in the sample, and only 57 of those said they voted in 1932.  The early Gallup polls had big samples (this was about 5500 people), but they didn't try to represent groups by their proportion in the population, but by what they thought was their proportion of the voters.  But even with these qualifications, it's safe to say that Roosevelt got far more than 21% of the black vote in 1932, and probably got more than half.  

By the way, the Washington Examiner op-ed piece I mentioned, which was published in 2019, argued that Trump was poised to make big gains among black voters in 2020.  That was the point of the comparison to the 1930s:  they said that just as Roosevelt had made big gains then, Trump could repeat that accomplishment now.  As I've mentioned before, many conservatives seem to want to believe that the Republicans are a multicultural party, or are on the verge of becoming one.  

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Ups and downs

 Last week the Supreme Court ruled against New York's restrictions on religious services.  I thought it was a pretty narrow ruling on a pretty narrow issue, so I was struck by both the number and the outraged tone of the reader comments on the NY Times story.  Traditionally, anti-clerical sentiment hasn't been a significant force in American politics, in contrast to countries like France or Italy--even Americans who didn't practice religion seemed to mostly have neutral or even vaguely positive feelings toward religion--but I've sometimes had the sense that this is starting to change.  Is there any systematic evidence on that point?

For many years, the Gallup Poll has been asking whether you think religion is gaining or losing influence in American life.  More recently, the Pew Research Center has adopted the question and sometimes followed it by asking whether it's a good thing or a bad thing that religion is [gaining/losing] influence.  The first time that was asked was in 2002, and the most recent was in 2019.  However, in the 2019 survey there was a large increase in the percent saying "doesn't matter" to the follow-up question.  That was an online survey, and my guess is that they gave a button for that option, while in the 2002 (phone) survey you had to volunteer it.  The most recent phone survey seems to be from 2014, so I included that too.  Here are the results

                                                 2002               2014                2019
Gaining, good                            31%                13%               10%

gaining, bad                                 4%                 11%                 6%

gaining, indifferent                      1%                   1%                 4%

losing, good                                 5%                  13%              17%

losing, bad                                  44%                  60%             42%

losing, indifferent                         3%                     2%            18%

In 2002, 75% had a "pro-religion" combination (gaining and good, losing and bad), 9% "anti-religion."  In 2014, it was 73% and 24%; in 2019, 52% and 23%.  In terms of ratios, that's about 8, 3, and 2.3.  So it appears that there is a growth in anti-religious sentiment.  However, the (February) 2002 figures may not be a good baseline--I think people moved to a more positive view of religion in the wake of 9/11/2001.  Maybe more searching would uncover some earlier figures. 


[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Wednesday, November 25, 2020


 A couple of points to follow up on recent posts:

1.  My last post mentioned a question on whether you "think [name's] presidency will bring different groups of Americans together, or do you think that it will divide them?"  It had been asked early in the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but I discovered that it was also asked under Donald Trump:

                      together       divide

12/2016              37%            58%

1/2017                34%            61%

That was lower than Bush (46% bring together vs. 40% divide in December 2000) and much lower than Obama.  In January 2020, there was a similar question:  "So far, do you think Donald Trump's presidency has helped to bring different groups of Americans together, has helped to divide Americans, or hasn't it made much difference?"  17% said bring together, 54% divide, and 26% that it hadn't made much difference.  Despite the difference in response categories, it's pretty clear that he'd fallen below even the low expectations he started with, which is interesting given that assessments of Trump on many issues remained almost constant throughout his presidency.  

2.  I've seem several more claims that Republican support among minority voters in 2020 was higher than in any year since 1960.  I've forgotten the source for most of them, but Andrew Sullivan said "more non-whites voted for a Republican candidate than in any election since 1960!", which is almost exactly what he said a couple of weeks ago, down to the exclamation point.  But it still isn't true!  It seems to have originated with a tweet from Adrian Gray, who describes himself as a "Center-Right Strategist."  He's deleted the original tweet, and replaced it with what he calls "updated" figures going back to 1968.  According to those, the Republican vote among non-whites was no longer the highest since 1960, but was still high--the second highest in the period, trailing only 2004.  I had a post which said that Republican support among ethnic minorities was just average in 2020.  Why do we come to different conclusions?  First, the composition of "non-white" voters has changed--before the 1970s, it was almost equivalent to black voters--most surveys didn't even have a Latino category until the 1970s, and many didn't distinguish Asians until sometime after that.  The Republican vote is higher among those ethnic groups than among blacks, so as they grew Republican support among "non-whites" improved, even though it stayed the same or declined among each individual group.  Second, I used exit polls, which only go back to 1972.  Gray's figures seem to use the American National Election Studies to some point and then switch to exit polls.  I'm not sure of this, but I have the impression that exit polls show more Republican support among ethnic minorities than the ANES does--if that's right, then the change in data sources would also make Republican performance in 2020 look better.

But regardless of what the exact numbers are, it's interesting that this claim has come to be widely accepted.  Many people want to believe that the Democrats are the party of "elites" and the Republicans are the party of the people.  (Or maybe I should say that conservatives want to believe it and liberals are afraid it might be true).  And multiculturalism has advanced far enough so that "the people" includes ethnic minorities.  So they jump at any evidence of strong performance among non-white voters.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Sunday, November 15, 2020

All the right people, part 2

 Since writing my last post, I've seen two more pieces saying that the purported* Trump realignment (more support among minorities and the working class, less among the white middle and upper classes) represents the way forward for the Republican party.  The first is by Jonathon Van Maren in the American Conservative, and the second is by Kevin Williamson in the Washington Post.  An interesting point is that both of them treat the central claim as self-evident, even though Trump just accomplished the rare feat of losing as an incumbent and the unprecedented feat of never having had an approval rating of over 50%.  Why would someone want to preserve a coalition that produced unpopularity and defeat?  You could say that it offers promise for the future because the non-white population is bound to increase.  On the other hand, so is the population with a college degree, so focusing on appeal to less educated people works against your long-term prospects.  As I've observed, there just seems to be a general sense that getting votes from disadvantaged groups is more worthy that getting the same number of votes from advantaged groups.  That view has always been prevalent on the left, but now the right seems to have adopted it too.  

In my last post, I suggested that Trump's appeal to less educated people was partly a matter of style rather than polices.  Williamson makes a similar point:  "Trump’s followers may thrill to the promise of trade wars and border walls, but what excites them even more is his gleeful transgression. They do not embrace him in spite of the schoolyard insults, Twitter tantrums and conspiracy nonsense, but because of these things..."   He says that they are reacting against elite progressive culture:  Trump's "constituency consists . . . ordinary people who woke up one morning to find themselves re-christened 'Latinx' or were sent to a corporate reeducation seminar because they didn’t get the memo on nonbinary pronouns."  But the problem with this argument is that elite progressive culture is an elite concern--most people have probably never even heard of the term "Latinx" or nonbinary pronouns. 

So what were people reacting against?  I think it is political conflict and gridlock.  Obama appealed to some of the same sentiments as Trump--he suggested that he would get things done by transcending traditional ideological divisions and bring people together, and at one time a lot of people, including people who didn't vote for him, believed that he could.  Between 2000 and 2009, CBS News had a number of survey questions that went "do you think George W. Bush's/Barack Obama's presidency will bring different groups of Americans together, or do you think that it will divide them?"  With Bush, opinions were consistently split, about 45% saying bring together and 45% saying divide.  Immediately after Obama's election, 69% said that they thought he would bring groups together, and only 16% said that they thought he would divide them.  Even in April 2009, it was 63% to 25%.  However, as Republicans maintained a united front of opposition, conflict increased rather than declined, and people turned to someone who said he would get things done by being tough and not caring if he offended people. 

*I say "purported" because it's not clear that there's been any change among racial minorities.  See my post from Nov 9.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Saturday, November 14, 2020

All the right people

 It used to be pretty common for parties to re-nominate a candidate who had lost a previous presidential election, most recently Richard Nixon in 1968.  But in recent decades the tendency has been to denounce any losing candidate as inept, dismiss him as a future contender, and sometimes to excise his/her legacy from the party.  Trump is an exception to this (as to many other things)--he's being mentioned as a possible candidate in 2024, and even many opponents of Trump say that "Trumpism" will remain a force.  Why?  It's not because of his overall performance--he got only 46% of the vote in 2016 against an unpopular opponent, and lost by a significant margin in 2020 despite the advantages of incumbency.  Rather. it seems to be because of the perceived composition of his votes--he had "a coalition that was more blue-collar and nonwhite" than those of previous Republican candidates.  As I have said before, there seems to be widespread sense that getting support from racial minorities and working-class people is more worthy than getting support from whites or the middle and upper classes. 

It's not clear that he actually did better than previous Republican candidates among non-white voters, or among blue-collar voters, but he did do well among whites without a college degree.  Republicans have been gaining among this group for a long time, but support jumped in 2016 and stayed high in 2020.  One popular view about why this happened was that he appealed to their economic interests with his positions on immigration and trade; another is that he diverted them from their economic interests by talking about threats to their status.  A third possibility, which has received less attention, is that his general style or image was appealing to less educated people.  I've discussed this a few times, but want to come back to it by considering a historical parallel.

In December 1953, the Gallup Poll had a survey which included several questions about Joe McCarthy--whether you approved of him, of his methods, whether you thought he should be the Republican nominee in 1956, whether you'd vote for him in a three-way race with Eisenhower, Stevenson, and McCarthy, and whether you thought he hurt or helped our relations with allies.  I divided education into not a high school graduate (53% of the sample), high school graduate (37%), and college graduate (10%).  On all of the questions, less educated people showed more support for McCarthy.  For example, 51% of people without high school diplomas, 44% of those with high school, and 30% of those with college degrees said they approved of his methods.  Of course, Republicans had more favorable attitudes, but at that time Republican support was higher among more educated people, so the relationship with education is stronger when you take account of partisanship.  Here is percent approving of his methods by education and 1952 vote:

                             Eisenhower       Stevenson        Non-voter

No HS                         74%                  45%                    71%

HS                               71%                  28%                   56%

College                        59%                  26%                   47%

 The appealing feature of this comparison is that there's no reason to think that views of McCarthy were connected to economic interests,  or that the status of working class people was threatened at the time.  So the educational difference is likely to be a direct result of education, not a reflection of something else.  The general point about the relationship between education and support for McCarthy was known at the time, but was generally seen in terms of "authoritarianism," which is a more complicated and controversial idea.  The characteristic view of less educated people might better be called something like "impatient" rather than "authoritarian":  someone could say that some of McCarthy's charges were excessive, but at least he was doing something about a problem, and not being held back by concerns about what people would think.   That's similar to what Trump's defenders said.   

Returning to the point, I doubt that a more conventional Republican--someone who did more or less what Trump did but didn't tweet about it--could maintain Trump's appeal to less educated voters.  The idea that he didn't care about offending people was part of his appeal.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Monday, November 9, 2020

Except for all of the exceptions

 In a recent post, I mentioned a claim that the Republicans had their best performance among minority voters since 1960.  I said it seemed to be "either misleading or simply wrong."  I would probably have forgotten about it, but this morning I saw a column from Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post saying "Trump appears to have won a larger share of the minority vote than any Republican since 1960." (It was dated Nov 5, so I was a few days late).  It included a link to the source (and he deserves credit for that), which was an article in the National Review, which quoted a tweet by someone who I think was described as a Republican strategist, but the original tweet was deleted.  When I looked back this afternoon, the link was no longer there, but there was an "Editor's note":  "An earlier version of this article and headline incorrectly stated that Trump won the largest share of non-white voters of any Republican presidential candidate since 1960. In fact, George W. Bush won a larger share of Hispanic and black voters, and Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Dole matched or eclipsed Trump’s support among blacks." That led me to wonder about the actual changes of the "minority" vote.  Here is a figure, using election polls since 1972:

For Asian-Americans, there is a downward trend in the Republican vote.  (There has been a lot of immigration from Asia, so perhaps it's because the composition of that population has changed).   For blacks and Latino/Latina, no trend.  The Republican vote among blacks was over 15% in 1972 and 1976, and has bounced around between 9% and 12% since then, except when Obama was running.  The Hispanic vote has tracked the non-Hispanic white vote pretty well (correlation of .59), although it has varied more (perhaps because of a smaller sample).  Overall, the general picture is stability in racial/ethnic differences, except for the shift of Asian-Americans.  

As far as the 2020 election, you might regard it as interesting that Trump didn't lose ground among blacks and Latinos, but his performance was not especially good--it was about average for a Republican.  For me, the most interesting thing is why this "fact" got out there so quickly--not just the general point that Trump did better among minority voters in 2020 than in 2016, but the precise but ridiculous claim that it was the best performance since 1960.  

Note (Nov 15):  The figure with the original scale--