Author Archive | Larry Bartels

(Not Much) Political Polarization in Europe

A few weeks ago, in the course of describing a new article by Simon Munzert and Paul Bauer on political depolarization in Germany, Andy mentioned that the topic of polarization outside the U.S. “seems very much worth studying.” Always eager to be of service, I sat right down and wrote an APSA paper on polarization in 21 European countries over the past two decades.

The data for my study are derived from a distillation of 30 items from European Values Study surveys into broad indices of economic values and cultural values. In each domain, I consider two distinct types of polarization: societal polarization, reflected by an increase in the overall standard deviation of economic or cultural values in a given national population, and partisan polarization, reflected by an increase in the multiple correlation between party support and values.

The distinction between societal polarization and partisan polarization looms large in the scholarly literature on American party politics, since the past few decades seem to have produced a good deal of the latter but very little of the former. However, anyone used to thinking solely about the U.S. may be surprised to learn that neither form of polarization is widespread elsewhere—at least not in Europe.

The average level of social dissensus regarding cultural values in my 21 European countries increased slightly between 1990 and 2008 (from 14.0 to 14.1 on a 100-point scale), but the average level of social dissensus regarding economic values decreased slightly (from 12.1 to 11.9). Meanwhile, the multiple correlation between party support and economic values increased slightly (from .336 in 1990 to .339 in 2008), while the multiple correlation between party support and cultural values declined (from .298 to .249). Only one of the 21 countries (Bulgaria) experienced both societal polarization and partisan polarization in both the economic and cultural domains, while seven (Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Romania) experienced net societal and partisan depolarization in both domains.

Notwithstanding the apparent disconnect between partisan polarization and societal polarization in the U.S., European systems with greater social dissensus also tend to have higher levels of partisan sorting (that is, partisan attachments are more strongly correlated with economic and cultural values). However, partisan sorting is even more strongly related to conservatism: in the most progressive European systems (as measured by average economic and cultural values), party support tends to be strongly related to values, while conservative countries tend to have much more disorganized party systems.


One obvious virtue of the European Values Study for work of this sort is that it facilitates systematic comparison across a variety of political systems. Another, less obvious, is that the longitudinal structure of the project (with comparable survey data in each country from 1990, 1999, and 2008) provides leverage for studying dynamic interconnections between different kinds of political change. For example, my paper includes statistical analyses relating changing levels of conservatism, social dissensus and partisan sorting between 1999 and 2008 to previous changes in economic and cultural values, dissensus and partisan sorting in the 1990s. The results suggest, among other things, that systems experiencing significant partisan polarization in the 1990s experienced much more societal polarization in the 2000s, other things being equal.

If that European pattern of spill-over holds in the U.S., we may soon be experiencing substantial increases in social dissensus after all.

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Power to (Altruists Concerned With) the Poor?

Ezra Klein wants you to know that the “conventional wisdom on Washington,” that “corporations win every fight and everyone else—particularly the poor—gets shafted,” is “wrong, or at least incomplete.” The “comforting” fact, according to Klein, is that the ”altruists” who champion the poor have “quite a lot” of political power, “at least in recent years.” Not the poor themselves, it goes without saying, but “the people, and the political party, most concerned” with improving their lot.

If this is an indirect way of saying that Democrats have accomplished some important things in the past five years, fair enough. In support of his view, Klein notes that Obamacare is scheduled to deliver a lot of very expensive health care to poor and working class people over the next decade, paid for partly with new taxes on top income earners. That’s true, and hugely important (though a significant slice of that expense reflects solicitude for insurers and health care providers—corporations).

Klein also notes that spending on food stamps has increased a lot. That’s also true, but less relevant, since the escalating cost is due to escalating need, hardly evidence of anyone’s political clout.

What Klein seems to me to be missing here is the big economic and political context in which class politics has played out “in recent years.” Here is what has happened to the net wealth of people at different points in the U.S. wealth distribution over the past decade (from a recent paper by Fabian Pfeffer, Sheldon Danziger, and Robert Schoeni):


Stop a moment to think about what those numbers are telling us. Millions of people in the bottom tier of the working class have lost, on average, 85% of their net worth. (Their average net wealth, which was already falling before the onset of the Great Recession, went from $6700 as recently as 2007 to $1500 in 2011). People even lower in the wealth distribution don’t appear in the graph because their net worth was negative all along; but in real terms, they have been hit even harder (at the 5th percentile, $39,000 in debt in 2011 as compared with $13,000 in 2007). Meanwhile, those near the top of the wealth distribution have been held harmless.

The story with respect to income is less dramatic, but qualitatively similar. From 2007 to 2011, the average real income of households in the bottom four income deciles declined by 9% (from $22,234 to $20,222), while the average income of households in the top 5% of the distribution plummeted from $311,524 to $311,444.

Against that background, it seems  more than a little bit obtuse to celebrate the “often overlooked” power of “the people, and the political party, most concerned with directly improving the lot of the poor.”

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White Vote by Income, 2012

Jeremy Johnson asks: “Do we have information yet about voting among whites based on income from the 2012 election?  Did lower-income whites in every state again vote more Democratic than upper-income whites?”


I don’t know about every state; but here is the picture for the Non-South and South, based on survey data from the 2012 Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project. The lowest income category is less than $10,000; the highest is $150,000 and up. The overall correlation between income and Democratic support is negative, but Obama’s voter share is higher in the top income groups than among the upper middle class. (That very low Obama share for the lowest income group in the South is based on 196 survey respondents; the other cell sizes range from 285 to 1420.)

When I was a kid, my parents bought the Encyclopedia Britannica. (For you youngsters in the audience, that was a big shelf of books containing all the good stuff that’s now on the internet.) One of the great features was that it came with a bunch of coupons you could mail in to get customized reports on any topic. (Looking back, it seems possible that we were the only subscribers in the world who were not submitting these as schoolwork.) Alas, The Monkey Cage can’t redeem every reader’s coupons—but today we’re here for you, Jeremy.

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Who Needs Math?







E. O. Wilson has an interesting brief essay (excerpted from a new book entitled Letters to a Young Scientist) on the role of mathematics and mathematical expertise in science. “Most of the stereotypical photographs of scientists studying rows of equations on a blackboard,” he notes, “are instructors explaining discoveries already made.”

Real progress comes in the field writing notes, at the office amid a litter of doodled paper, in the hallway struggling to explain something to a friend, or eating lunch alone. . . . Ideas in science emerge most readily when some part of the world is studied for its own sake. They follow from thorough, well-organized knowledge of all that is known or can be imagined of real entities and processes within that fragment of existence.

Wilson acknowledges that “When something new is encountered, the follow-up steps usually require mathematical and statistical methods to move the analysis forward.” At that point, he suggests finding a collaborator. But technical expertise in itself is of little avail: ”The annals of theoretical biology are clogged with mathematical models that either can be safely ignored or, when tested, fail. Possibly no more than 10% have any lasting value. Only those linked solidly to knowledge of real living systems have much chance of being used.”

Paul Krugman concurs, but with a caveat:

[A]t least in the areas I work in, you do need some mathematical intuition, even if you don’t necessarily need to know a lot of formal theorems. . . . [T]he intuition is crucial, and not just for writing academic papers. If you’re going to talk about economics at all, you need some sense of how magnitudes play off against each other, which is the only way to have a chance of seeing how the pieces fit together. . . . [M]aybe the thing to say is that higher math isn’t usually essential; arithmetic is.

My own work has become rather less mathematical over the course of my career. When people ask why, I usually say that as I have come to learn more about politics, the “sophisticated” wrinkles have seemed to distract more than they added. Krugman’s comment seems to me to help illuminate why that might be the case. “Seeing how the pieces fit together” requires “some sense of how magnitudes play off against each other.” But, paradoxically, ”higher math” can get in the way of “mathematical intuition” about magnitudes. Formal theory is often couched in purely qualitative terms: under such and such conditions, more X should produce more Y. And quantitative analysis—which ought to focus squarely on magnitudes—is less likely to do so the more it is justified and valued on technical rather than substantive grounds.

I recently spent some time doing an informal meta-analysis of studies of the impact of campaign advertising. At the heart of that literature is a pretty simple question: how much does one more ad contribute to the sponsoring candidate’s vote share? Alas, most of the studies I reviewed provided no intelligible answer to that question; and the correlation between methodological “sophistication” (logarithmic transformations, multinomial logits, fixed effects, distributed lag models) and intelligibility was decidedly negative. The authors of these studies rarely seemed to know or care what their results implied about the magnitude of the effect, as long as those results could be billed as “statistically significant.” Competing estimates differ (once their implications are unpacked) by orders of magnitude, with no indication from anyone that anything might be amiss. Of course, there is no reason why mathematically sophisticated analyses cannot be sensibly interpreted. Nevertheless, it seems clear that this is one corner of political science—and I believe there are many others—in which “higher math” is much less urgently needed than “arithmetic.”

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The Very Rich are Different From You and Me

Wealthy Americans, by a sizeable margin, consider the federal debt to be the nation’s most important problem. Unlike the public as a whole, they support cutting spending on a wide variety of government programs, including health care and social security. They are much less supportive of corporate taxation, and they strongly oppose redistributing wealth by heavy taxes on the rich.

Imagine what the political debate in Washington would sound like if these people called the shots . . .

Benjamin Page has been spearheading an effort to generate systematic data on the political preferences and behavior of wealthy Americans. The results of a Chicago-area pilot survey are reported in an article by Page, Jason Seawright, and me in the latest issue of Perspectives on Politics. Cambridge University Press has kindly ungated the article, along with several others in a stimulating symposium on “The Politics of Inequality in the Face of Financial Crisis.” Scholars Strategy Network has Page’s summary of the findings, and today’s Los Angeles Times has an op-ed-size bite.

The logistical and analytical challenges in this sort of research are daunting—but the potential payoff for our understanding of the political process seems to me to be enormous.


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Working Papers

Some things I think I’ve learned lately (get ‘em here while they last):

The extraordinary economic crisis of the past five years has produced surprisingly ordinary politics. “Political Effects of the Great Recession,” for a special issue of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science on “Effects of the Great Recession.”

When your first book is a field-defining classic, there’s still plenty of room for intellectual growth. ”The Political Education of John Zaller,” for a special issue of Critical Review marking the 20th anniversary of The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion.

Individual members of Congress are more responsive to their constituents’ views than they have been in a century—but Congress as a whole is less representative. “Representation” (with Joshua Clinton and John Geer), for the Oxford Handbook of American Political Development.

Mo Fiorina’s party identification is shaped more by McGovern, Watergate, and Carter than by Bush and Obama. ”A Generational Model of Political Learning” (with Simon Jackman), for a special issue of Electoral Studies on “New Approaches in Age, Period, Cohort Analysis.”

When voters cannot tell the difference between effort and luck, leaders are likely to exert less effort on their behalf. Now with a formal model of political accountability! ”Why Shark Attacks are Bad for Democracy” (with Christopher Achen).

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The Elusive Mandate: Searching for Meaning in Presidential Elections

That’s the title of a lecture I delivered recently at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The talk—an opinionated overview of political science research on American presidential elections—is now posted on the Radcliffe Institute’s website. Here’s the summary:

Almost 50 years ago, eminent Harvard political scientist V. O. Key Jr. described in his book The Responsible Electorate an electorate “moved by concern about central and relevant questions of public policy, of governmental performance, and of executive personality.” Bartels assesses how well Key’s optimistic portrait of the American electorate holds up in light of the subsequent half-century of electoral research. He concludes that presidential election outcomes are mostly determined by factors unrelated to central and relevant questions of public policy and governmental performance.

There’s nothing about the 2012 election, except to note that it was quite ordinary.

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The Economy and the Campaign

Income growth was slow through most of 2012, and prospective voters were correspondingly pessimistic about the state of the economy. So how was Barack Obama reelected? An important part of the answer is that perceptions of the economy became significantly less pessimistic in the fall than they had been in the summer—a shift coinciding with the beginning of a rebound in the actual income growth rate in September. This upturn in economic perceptions probably boosted Obama’s popular vote margin by about three percentage points—suggesting that an election held a few months sooner might have been a good deal closer.

While the election outcome was unsurprising in historical perspective, it raises the question of how prospective voters saw and responded to economic trends. Real per capita GDP was almost 5% higher in the fall of 2012 than it had been in the winter of 2009; but real incomes were less than 1% higher, and the official unemployment rate stood at 7.8%, just as it had in January 2009. More importantly from a political perspective, there was little evidence of economic momentum through most of the election year. Month-to-month real income growth—represented by the brown line in the figure above—declined raggedly but significantly through the first eight months of the year. Public perceptions of whether the economy was getting better or worse grew increasingly pessimistic over the same period, and remained firmly in negative territory throughout the year—especially among propsective voters who began the campaign undecided, represented by the purple line in the figure.

The trends in economic perceptions shown in the figure are based on weekly surveys conducted as part of the 2012 Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project. The same survey data can be used to track the political impact of these economic views over the course of the campaign. The statistical estimates of that political impact in the figure below suggest that, as perceptions of the economy became more pessimistic through the spring and summer, they also became more influential in shaping vote intentions—a process referred to in the scholarly literature as “priming.”

Because all of the CCAP respondents completed a baseline survey in December 2011, they can be partitioned into three distinct subsets based on their predispositions at the beginning of the 2012 campaign: those who reported supporting Obama in the baseline interview (43%), those who reported supporting Romney (38%), and those who reported being unsure who they would support (15%). The figure represents the impact of economic perceptions on evolving vote intentions for these three distinct groups.

The results for 2011 undecided voters, represented by the purple bars, provide strong evidence of an increasing effect of economic perceptions on vote intentions over the course of the campaign. In the first four months of the election year—during the competitive phase of the Republican primary campaign—a previously undecided voter who saw the economy as improving was about 14% more likely to have gravitated to Obama than one who thought the economy was getting worse. However, once Romney emerged as the presumptive Republican nominee, the impact of economic perceptions on vote intentions increased markedly, and that impact remained substantially higher through the summer and fall than it had been earlier in the election year. After Labor Day, a previously undecided voter who saw the economy improving was about 42% more likely to have gravitated to Obama than one who thought the economy was getting worse.

Evidence of economic priming also appears among prospective voters who reported supporting Romney or Obama in the December 2011 baseline survey. Although most of them stuck by their original vote intentions through the campaign season, those who defected were disproportionately those whose economic perceptions were incongruent with their original vote intentions. And that was increasingly true as the campaign wore on—though the increasing impact of economic perceptions was more modest and more gradual for Romney supporters (represented by the red bars) and even more modest for Obama supporters (represented by the blue bars) than for those who had begun the election year undecided.

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Obama Toes the Line

 The regression line, that is.

John’s post on “the ‘formidable campaign’ narrative” offers some apt words of caution regarding one popular explanation for the president’s reelection. Alas, that’s a bit like trying to bail out the ocean with a bucket. There’s always more ocean; and there are always more plausible-sounding special explanations for Obama’s victory—including demographic shifts, early ads, clever micro-targeting, and a fortuitous storm, among many others. Some of them may even have merit. But what all of them have in common is that they are superflous. In 2012, as in 2008, Obama’s electoral performance was quite consistent with what might have been expected on the basis of political fundamentals. Perhaps the president deserves some sort of award for his unmatched fidelity to the “laws” (irony intended) of political science.

We have lots of distinct but broadly consistent statistical analyses of presidential election outcomes. My own favorite is based on just two factors: the income growth rate in the second and third quarters of the election year and the incumbent party’s tenure in office. The figure above combines these two factors by relating election outcomes to tenure-adjusted income growth, which simply subtracts 1.29 from the actual income growth rate for each consecutive term (beyond the first) that the incumbent party has held the White House. Details of the regression analysis appear after the jump.

Statistical analyses of this sort provide useful benchmarks for interpreting the result of any specific presidential election. For example, the 2012 election outcome (which appears almost exactly in the center of the figure) fits the historical pattern of post-war presidential election results splendidly; Obama’s popular vote margin was 3.8%, while his expected margin (based on the preliminary tabulations of real disposable income currently available from the Bureau of Economic Analysis) was 4.6%. (Subsequent revision of the income figures may push the 2012 data point to the left or right, but is unlikely to move it far from the regression line.) The 2008 election outcome (near the lower-left corner of the figure) was also quite consistent with the historical pattern; McCain trailed Obama in the popular vote by 7.3 percentage points—slightly better than expected, given the dismally low −0.8% mid-year income growth rate and eight years of “incumbent fatigue” due to George W. Bush.

Perhaps we need a Political Science Balanced Budget Act as a constraint on election interpretation. Anyone who wants to believe that Obama’s “formidable campaign” (or whatever) won him more votes than an ordinary campaign would have won should feel free to do so, but should be required to propose some equally plausible source(s) of vote losses to balance the ledger. You can’t just add a positive number to 4.6 (or whatever analogous baseline figure you prefer) and get 3.8.

Meanwhile, the scatterplot should also underline the point that not every election is as typical as both of Obama’s have been. From the perspective of this or any other model, future elections will produce some surprising landslides (like Eisenhower’s in 1956) and some surprising defeats (like Humphrey’s in 1968 and Ford’s in 1976). While it may well be that “the findings of the political science canon were largely confirmed by the 2012 election,” that is no guarantee that they will be largely confirmed again next time. (Certainly the canon is not being enriched so quickly that we are in danger of running out of surprises anytime soon.) As Neal Beck put it many years ago in a related context, ”We Should Be Modest.”

Finally, on the subject of next time, this analysis suggests that any income growth at all is likely to be sufficient for reelection when a party has held the White House for only four years. (Indeed, the only incumbent party candidate in more than a century to have lost under that circumstance was Jimmy Carter, who ran for reelection in the midst of an election-year recession more severe than the Republicans’ in 2008.) That was a lucky thing for Democrats in 2012. But now things get harder. Holding the White House again in 2016—regardless of who the competing candidates turn out to be—will probably require a significantly more robust election-year economy than last year’s. On that score alone, Any Republican should, for now, be considered a modest favorite.

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How (My) Science Works

A group called EGAP (Experiments in Governance and Politics) is considering a proposal to establish a “Pilot Registry for Research Designs” where scholars could register new research projects, specifying in advance the topic, data to be collected, hypotheses to be tested, data analysis to be conducted, and conditions under which the hypotheses would be accepted or refuted. Once the research was conducted and written up, journal editors and referees would have access to the corresponding prospectus in order to verify that the results reported in the paper were not instances of “publication bias” or mindless “fishing” for statistically significant results. Upon publication, or after some pre-specified period of time, the corresponding research prospectus would be in the public domain.

The focus of the pilot proposal is on “Prospective Research” designs, whether experimental or observational, ”for which outcomes have not yet been realized.” That is mostly not what I do. Nevertheless, a friend—perhaps inspired by the proposers’ interest in expanding the system to include “retrospective studies,” and in using experience with the proposed pilot registry to decide “whether to make registration mandatory for some kinds of research”—asks, as a “thought experiment,” how such a system would affect my work, suggesting as an example my 1996 article on “Uninformed Votes.” My response is below the fold. Continue Reading →

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