Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Democrats Are The Natural Party Of Government?

Paul Krugman gets me thinking once again.  This time, he's thinking that the Democrats are now the natural party of government, because they've won the popular vote at every presidential election since 1988 save one, and that was a wartime election.
Paul Krugman, "Death by Epistemology"
New York Times, Nov. 12, 2012

Well, he sort of makes his point, and he sort of doesn't.  The Presidency, as far as elections are concerned, is disconnected from the national popular vote by the presence of the electoral college, which encourages tactical behavior in vote seeking by the candidates.  So, it's a poor proxy for determining who the "party of government" is, as far as the U.S. is concerned.  

I've seen people turn to governorships, to try to figure out which party is closer to the heartbeat of the nation, but that has similar problems (we're weighting California and Texas the same as Rhode Island and Delaware?). 

It seems to me that the very idea of the "party of government" is a Parliamentary one, specifically, the party controlling the lower house, the Commons.  If we really want to apply the concept and try and see which American party would correspond, it makes more sense to look to the House of Representatives, to our lower house of the legislature, and try and get a sense of which "party" the American "popular vote" goes for by aggregating the votes for the representatives of the different parties. 

In the old days, that would be hard.  But the Clerk of the House has thoughtfully put PDF results up with exactly those totals, dating back to 1920.  I took at look at the totals from 1988 to the present; I've inferred the 2012 vote totals by taking the popular vote and subtracting 5 million -- that's about the percentage of votes that go to third parties in House elections; the final tally of seats is not complete yet (four elections yet to be called) but they're close enough to done for these purposes.

The Republicans, of course, win control of the "American Commons" much more frequently, starting in 1994. But 1994 isn't an outlier -- 1992 is.  The turnout in 1992 was enormous; it wasn't decisively exceeded until 2004.  The Democrats held a big majority going in to the election (270 seats) and came out with 258; no party has had as big a majority in the House since.

Then the 1994 "Republican Revolution" took place, and the Republicans picked up 54 seats, and they've been in control of the House constantly, with the exception of 2006-2010, since.  There's one odd situation in there, 1996, where the Republicans lose the "popular vote" for the House, but still ended up in control, and 1998 and 2000 were whisker-close. Nevertheless, I think that, if you wanted to pick the "party of government," at least in the English sense, I think you would still go with the Republicans.

But the data supports some other conclusions,  too.  No House of Representatives has had more support in the country in absolute terms than the Democrats of 2008; the number of votes they received went up  by nearly 50% over 2006.  It seems like ~15 million more people show up, for both sides, in a Presidential year, but not 2008; that year 22 million more people showed up for the Democrats, but only 16 million for the Republicans. I don't think anyone is surprised to learn Obama had pretty big coattails in 2008.

The other thing that's interesting is how many votes the Republican Congress will have received, in 2012, when the final tally is done.  The Republican majority of 2004 was the first Congressional majority to receive more than 50 million votes nationally; the Democratic majority of 2008 was the first to receive more than 60 million.  One would think that this election, from a Congressional perspective, may very well be more like 1996 than 2008, with a very close vote despite the Republicans continuing to control the House.

So is Krugman wrong? No -- I think he's identifying something that's real, but is drawing the wrong conclusion.  His column is full of references to how the Democrats are now better organized than the Republicans.  I think he's missing the fact that the Democrats have become the party of the Executive branch; of the last six presidencies, four have been Democratic.  Parties that control the Executive branch tend to be better organized--after all, they have a leader.

However, It's hard to control both the Executive and the Legislature--for instance, Republican candidates in different regions can argue divergent positions, but both can point to the President as a counterexample.  They are not saddled with the positions of the leader of their party. All this is probably little consolation to Mitt Romney, but by the same token, Democratic presidents are probably going to have to get used to a series of Republican Houses for the near future.