About this issue

Special Editors: Larry M. Bartels

Volume 667

Publication Date: September 2016

Domestic Politics

This issue of The ANNALS offers a sampling of current scholarly work from many of the nation’s leading political scientists on party politics, campaigns, voting behavior, and electoral accountability. Our aim is to provide evidence that helps to explain how issues and ideology can influence the electorate, how racial and demographic change is affecting presidential politics, the nature of populism, and the impact of political campaigning.

Because these articles were drafted in early 2016—still in the midst of the campaign primary season—the contributions tend to focus on broad historical patterns in campaigning and voting that are important regardless of the specific circumstances of the 2016 campaign. Some use data from the current election cycle to shed light on intra- and interparty cleavages that have come to the fore in the 2016 election. Still others consider the specific circumstances of 2016 in light of recent or distant political experience.

Key Findings

  • Fundamentals favor Trump but the game may be changing. Statistical modeling of the “fundamentals” that tends to determine the outcome of presidential elections gives Republicans a slight advantage in the general election. The economy is growing and consumers are increasingly optimistic, which would bode well for Democrats, but voters are more pessimistic about the polity and the president than they are positive about the economy, and Democrats are also disadvantaged by the fact that they have held the White House for eight years—voters tend to want change after that length of incumbency.
  • Ascendance of the Democrats? The fundamentals sketched out above are at odds, though, with Democrat’s demographic advantage in the growing nonwhite voting public. A new analysis of the long-term political implications of the Obama presidency shows that the Democrats have succeeded in solidifying the support of younger voters, gaining a substantial and probably durable electoral advantage for the near to medium term. Among voters who came of age under George W. Bush and Obama, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a solid three-to-two margin and even among Republicans, young people are less implacably opposed to Obama and his policies than are their elders.
  • Will 2016 fundamentally change party politics? There are striking similarities between this election cycle and the Gilded Age election of 1896: partisanship is extremely high, geographic partisan divides are almost identical, and the partisan balance in Congress is precarious: “…if the parties contest the 2016 election on the same familiar ground (race, size of government, muscularity of foreign policy), we will get a familiar result. But, should Donald Trump’s scrambling of the GOP during the nomination process produce new fault lines (protectionism and economic populism) … it could break the mold.”
  • The low cost of extremism:
    • There is “little evidence of an electorally important relationship between candidate extremism and vote outcomes.” This finding debunks the myth that the defeats of Goldwater in 1964 and McGovern in 1972 are proof that voters punish extremist candidates.
    • Candidates also do not converge on the centrist positions favored by supposedly pivotal swing voters. Democrat and Republican core partisans have become more polarized, but they are still not sufficiently different as to make the positions of presidential candidates seem like compromises between core partisans and swing voters. In fact, presidential candidates (especially Democrats) have often been even more extreme than their core partisans.
  • Presidential campaign visits probably don’t accomplish much. A detailed analysis of media coverage in the 2012 presidential campaign finds that the effect of candidate visits on local media coverage was very modest, and has little effect on voter intentions. Contrary to the conventional wisdom of campaign professionals, resources might be better spent on “activities that have been shown to more reliably influence voters—such as building out campaign infrastructure at the local level and providing more resources for voter contact.”
  • Understanding the cleavage in the Republican Party. Survey research reveals the nuance in the Republican Party divide: there are deep differences between activists who endorse “compromise to get things done” and those who want political leaders to “stick to their principles, no matter what.” This cleavage between party purists and pragmatists is stark among Republicans and not nearly as present among Democrats.
  • Measuring populism: A detailed analysis of populism in American public opinion identifies three distinct dimensions of populism: anti-elitism, mistrust of experts, and American nationalism. Several candidates tapped into one or another of these during the primaries, but only Donald Trump managed high average scores on all three. Also, congressional polarization closely tracks public disaffection, suggesting a growing “representation gap” that fertilizes upwelling populism.
  • Down-ballot consequences. The presidency seems to be the overwhelming focus of voters’ hopes and fears, and voters are mostly incapable of holding state legislators accountable for performance in office. State legislators who share a party affiliation with an unpopular president are more likely to be challenged and more likely to be defeated.

Gary Jacobson’s essay, which draws conclusions from the volume, is neither sanguine about the state of the electorate, nor encouraging that this cycle will bring change. Increasingly strong partisan loyalties and “thoroughly nationalized federal elections” mostly produce divided government and policy stalemate. Democrats are winning presidential elections, but their votes have been geographically concentrated in a minority of congressional districts, allowing Republicans to win control of the House. “Even a solid Democratic victory in 2016 would not loosen the Republican grip on the House and would simply extend Obama-era conflicts. A Republican victory would produce a unified national government but with a policy agenda that, if actively pursued, would face intransigent Democratic opposition.”

The idea of status quo bias prevailing even in an election year as tumultuous as this one is unsettling, but also open to dispute. Some of the research presented in this volume of The ANNALS points to gradual but substantial changes in the electorate that may be a source of significant strain on the existing party system. An even more dramatic outcome of 2016 might be an election in which voter participation is very high, and the decisive results reveal fundamental changes in characteristics of the electorate. In any case, the research presented here is corpus scholarship that contributes to our understanding of the dynamics of this election year and also the underlying characteristics of the electorate over time.

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