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#32 -- A simple theory to explain the election's big surprise
Why did the Democrats win the Presidential vote but do so poorly in everything further down on the ballot -- Senate, House, and state-level races? There are a lot of theories: a) Republicans liked Republicanism, and conservatism, even Trumpism, but they didn't like Trump! b) Swing voters liked Biden but were turned off by left wing Democratic themes — "defund the police,” Medicare for All, cutting edge progressivism on gender dysphoria in 8-year olds, etc. c) Voters in general wanted Congress to be a check on a Democratic executive.
All plausible. But what if the explanation is something simpler and less profound -- mechanical even? The essential idea was proposed by veteran campaign reporter Walter Shapiro. It’s based on the idea of “roll off,” the tendency of some voters to vote for candidates at the top of the ticket while leaving the nether regions of the ballot blank. Here’s Shapiro:
A tentative theory: Ballot-rolloff is greater than normal this year because the Biden campaign pushed early voting by mail -- and a larger than usual number of voters didn't feel that they knew enough about down-ballot races to vote on them.
If this is true, what more explanation do you need? Dems simply made a strategic mistake: They pushed early, mail-in and absentee voting, which may have won them the presidential election but which also brought them a bunch of voters who, in their rush to rid America of Trump, left the other parts of the ballot untouched -- with the result that, below the presidential level, Dems got their clocks cleaned.
You can challenge the foundation of this idea — e.g by arguing that those voting at home should have more time to research House & Senate races. At least one study — based on Washington state’s 1996-2012 experience — claims to show this. But does that really hold this year, with the stampede to avoid the pandemic and feared postal delays, with the Dems reaching out to irregular voters who may not want to spend a lot of time on House candidates but knew they wanted Trump gone?
What you can't do, I think, is deny that the theory has some explanatory virtues. In particular, it does not require that lots of Republicans voted for "Trumpism Without Trump," picking Biden but then reverting to GOP form and backing Trump’s supporters for lesser positions. Nor does it require that Democrats split their tickets by supporting Biden--but then voting to protect themselves against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her “squad” when it came to their Congresspeople. Or that pro-gridlock voters of any party cleverly calculate who is going to win the White House and then vote against that party for all other offices. Ticket splitting in fact declined this year. Shapiro’s theory doesn't require any ticket-splitting at all. Everyone can be 100% loyal and still produce a split result.
This may seem counterintuitive, but the basic arithmetic is straightforward. In simplified form, it’s this:
Suppose there are 120 Democrats who want Joe Biden. And 100 Republicans who want Donald Trump.
None of them splits their tickets. But a third of the Democrats, in their party’s mail-in rush, only vote for President. Meanwhile, all the Republicans vote a GOP ticket all the way down. The result:
Biden wins the Presidency 120 to 100.
Democrats get wiped out in every other race, 100 to 80.
Which pretty much matches what happened. Occam, get your razor.
You don't need to postulate an anti-AOC backlash, or any other particular unhappiness among potential Dem voters with the party's leftward shift. Dems voted for Dems — when they were paying attention! None (in this model) drift over to support Republicans. You don't need to conclude that GOP base voters “soured on Trump, the man, rather than Trump policies” or that the GOP’s Congressional support constitutes “a staggering repudiation of Donald Trump. Of him. Personally.” Or that the “shy Trump vote was far smaller than a potential shy House Republican vote.” No! The cause was over on the Dem side. The GOP Congressional candidates won, in this theory, because of the Democrats’ mail-in laziness, not because a chunk of voters were Trump-hating Republicans.
Shapiro's theory is the Death of 1000 Takes. No wonder, then, that political commentators and consultants of all stripes ignore it. If it’s true, they can’t use 2020’s strange outcome to push their preexisting notions of where the Dems or the GOP need to go. It was just an artifact, an unanticipated consequence, of one party’s tactical decision on absentee voting.** Nothing more. Whoops!
I don't like this theory either. It prevents me from pushing my preexisting notion, that Dems went too far left on immigration (as well as on crime and “woke” cultural issues). Maybe the mail-in/roll-off theory is wrong. Perhaps dead wrong! You'd think some campaign nerd with his hands on all the relevant numbers could prove or disprove it in a matter of hours.
If that nerd is you, your services would be greatly appreaciated. If the theory’s wrong, I will happily blame Shapiro and go back to work on my take.
** —Similarly, Trump’s decision to vilify mail-in balloting may have saved the GOP Senate and produced the party’s House gains. That’s a bit of a tricky argument — you’d have to argue that Republicans who would have mailed in their votes (but for Trump’s fulminations) would have blown off the lesser races to the same extent Dems did.
No Aide Left Behind: When Foreign Policy magazine was launched in 1970 to compete with the venerable Foreign Affairs, there were jokes that it was the first magazine founded not because there was unmet demand from readers but because there was unmet demand from writers desperate to see their treatises in print. I thought about this when reading about the mad scramble for Biden administration jobs now underway.
“There are a lot of mouths to feed,” said one person familiar with the dynamic, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment frankly. “Finding space for them will be a challenge.”
The solution to this challenge is clear: Following the Foreign Policy example, simply start a second government to sop up all the eager applicants the first Biden government can’t place. This B-Team could be well paid, with fancy titles, suites and Senate confirmations if necessary. Think about it: Full employment! No disgruntled office seekers writing snippy op-eds from left or right, or campaigning for political opponents (they’d be Hatched), or reluctantly going to work for K Street clients undermining Biden’s regulatory moves. Then if Biden grew dissatisfied with the performance of an agency he could simply swap in the mirror team from the alternative Bidenworld.
Don’t let Brookings steal this idea.
Not So Cocky, MSM: On October 25th New York Times’ Ben Smith wrote a column proclaiming the unexpected success of big media “gatekeepers” at containing the Hunter Biden scandal — keyed to the Wall Street Journal’s decision to basically declare the story dead (“Corporate records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show no role for Joe Biden,”—as if that ended the matter) . “The last two weeks have proved … that the old gatekeepers, like The Journal, can still control the agenda,” Smith wrote.
Are we sure of that? Is Smith still sure of it? What’s the explanation for Trump’s final surge in the polls — starting around the time the Hunter scandal broke on Oct. 15 — if not that enough of the story leaked out into the general populace to start changing minds? You got a better theory? Not much else in the narrative changed, as far as I can tell.
I guess Smith could still argue that if the “mainstream media” hadn’t partially contained the Hunter story, the results would have been worse for Hunter’s father — maybe even costing him the election. According to the champion of the 2020 post-mortem, Democratic analyst David Shor, controlling the mainstream narrative — mainly what the median voter sees on TV — is still most of the ballgame.
“The average voter in a general election is something like 50 years old — in a midterm or primary, it’s higher. … They watch about six hours of TV a day — that’s the average; there are people who watch more. ... They still largely get their news from mainstream sources. They’re watching what’s on the ABC Nightly News. Maybe they see some stuff on Facebook, but it’s really mostly from mainstream sources.
The “mainstream sources” worked really hard for Biden. They won. Blue check marks all around!