2012 Elections Conference: Issues in the Election

Panelists: Nolan McCarty (Princeton University), Rod Kiewiet (California Institute of Technology), Jason Roberts (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), and Brian Schaffner (University of Massachusetts, Amherst).

Dr. Kiewiet discussed his interpretation of the 2012 elections as a “skirmish in an inter-generational affair.” The real winners, in his view, were those over the age of 60. Importantly, the 2012 elections cemented at least the perception that Social Security and other entitlement programs remain the ‘third rail’ of American politics. This is problematic given long-term trends in the demographic structure of the American populace. For instance, the ratio of covered workers to beneficiaries has shrunk from 5:1 in 1960 to 2:9 in 2010, and is projected to reach 2:1 in a few years. As a consequence, entitlement programs will become a larger drain on the federal budget, which will also suffer from depressed growth rates that usually accompany aging populations.

In the 2012 campaign, the Romney/Ryan campaign did discuss some suggestions for entitlement reforms. In contrast, the Obama campaign proposed virtually no changes to entitlement programs, successfully avoiding the third rail:

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The electoral consequences of this postures are not yet clear, but it appears that entitlement reform is not a winner at the ballot box, meaning that the political environment virtually ensures that we will continue on our present path.

Next, Dr. McCarty focused on the financial crisis and the minor role it played in the 2012 elections. Romney criticized Dodd-Frank, but only as part of a generic complaint about regulation. Obama touted financial reform, but only as a generic part of his efforts to promote economic recovery. Why was it that, given the consequences of the 2008 economic meltdown, financial reform received so little attention in the presidential campaign? His answer is that it was not a good issue for either candidate.

The financial sector was the largest contributor in the 2012 elections, and it shifted towards Republicans this year ($300 million for Republicans, $142 million for Democrats). However, Democrats received more contributions than Republicans in 2008, kept it close in 2010, and needed to prevent a complete exodus in 2012. Financial reform was not a good issue for Romney because public opinion was not favorable towards his policy stances. As part of research for their forthcoming book Political Bubbles, McCarty, Poole and Rosenthal found four things about public opinion towards financial reform: (1) the public blamed the financial sector for the crisis (don’t agree that it was primarily government policies that set the crisis in motion), (2) believe that deregulation of the financial industry was an important cause, (3) was not opposed to government intervention during the crisis, and (4) generally supported financial reform. Financial reform was also not a particularly salient issue for Tea Party activists, so this was not an effective way to fire up his base.

Dr. Roberts discussed the prospects for filibuster reform in the next (113th) Congress. Certainly, there has been full scale procedural warfare in recent Congresses: a proliferation of holds, cloture petitions/votes, and filling of amendment trees. Proposals to deal with Senate obstruction have become recently become salient (for example, the ‘talking filibuster’ proposal). However, standing rules require a 2/3 vote to make changes to Rule 22 (cloture), and given the partisan climate, any reform would likely be via the “nuclear” or “constitutional” option. Could this happen? Democrats will have 55 Senators in the 113th Senate, but Senators Levin, Pryor, Nelson, McCaskill and Inouye have all expressed reservations. Senators of both parties have also been hesitant based on a fear of being in the minority. Certainly, Democrats will be on the defense in 2014, raising the specter they make soon occupy minority status. This will dampen Democratic enthusiasm for checks on minority power in the Senate.

Finally, Dr. Schaffner examined the extent of partisan bias in perceptions of economic conditions over the course of the 2012 campaign. As a larger trend, economic evaluations have become highly polarized over the past decade. However, this is not because one group of partisans is faring any better than the other, as measures of personal economic evaluations (e.g., “do you feel financial secure”) reveal. Where partisan disagreement comes into play are in perceptions of the economy at large, and this was certainly the case in 2012. 2012 likely afforded a greater role for partisan bias, since economic conditions were muddled (neither great nor horrible). His results suggest that in 2012, partisan bias dramatically influenced not only subjective economic evaluations, but perceptions of economic facts, as well.

Dr. Schaffner looks specifically at partisan evaluations of the economy after two important jobs reports that came out during the 2012 campaign. The June jobs report was fairly negative, while the October jobs report was a positive one.

In June, a national survey asked respondents to characterize the June jobs report: whether it was very or somewhat positive, negative, or mixed. As can be seen in the figures below, Democrats and Republicans split widely in their responses. Moreover, partisan bias was exacerbated among those who said they payed close attention to new about the report: 70% of attentive Republicans answered “very negative,” while only about 5% of attentive Democrats said the same:

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After the October report, a sample of Massachusetts voters were asked whether the unemployment rate has increased, decreased, or stayed the same over the course of the year (it had actually decreased a small amount). The October report was positive, but some prominent figures – namely Jack Welch – questioned the accuracy of the numbers. Treating the announcement as an intervention, Dr. Schaffner finds that the percentage of liberals saying that unemployment had decreased jumped considerably after the announcement of the report, and continued to rise slightly in the days after. The percentage of conservatives saying that unemployment decreased also jumped, but by a smaller amount. Moreover, the increase was temporary, perhaps brought back down by questions about the jobs numbers. The same pattern is true, but a bit more dramatic among conservatives, when asked if unemployment had increased over the past year.

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