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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

KY Governor's Race Autopsy - An Interview with Stephen Voss

An Interview with Professor Stephen Voss UK Political Science Professor about Kentucky's Governor's Race 2015:

Liberal in Kentucky:  What happened with the polling this year?  Why was it so off?

Stephen Voss:  Evidence is still rolling in, but one way or the other, the story has to involve a much higher Republican turnout than the polls detected.

That is not a new problem: Many polls and forecasters failed to account for the so-called Enthusiasm Gap that favored Republicans in 2010, and parts of the Obama coalition turned out in surprisingly low numbers in 2014, resulting in polling bias toward the Democrats in Senate races around the country.

I guess it looks foolish, in retrospect, not expecting the same problem here this year -- but SurveyUSA had made adjustments to the Bluegrass Poll after 2014 to try to fix their errors, and the arrangement of responses across different social groups did not look as fishy this year as they had in 2014.  Also, the results were more consistent across polls and polling organizations this time around, whereas in 2014 they bounced all over the place.  So I trusted the polls like everyone else.

A conspiracy theory is circulating right now saying that the polls were closer to the truth than we realize, and it's the electronic voting machines that are the problem, having skewed the vote in some way toward the GOP.  Assuming that's not what happened, though, I see two main explanations:

1) People lie about their intention to vote, giving the socially desirable response that they'll show up at the polls when in reality they are not going to bother.  Pollsters need to massage their data so that they're estimating the preferences of people actually likely to vote.  It's possible they underestimated how many conservatives of low-socioeconomic status would show up on Election Day.

2) Conservatives tend to be more suspicious of professional organizations than are voters on the left, and they may not be cooperating equally with pollsters.  I can believe that this ideological difference might be even stronger in Kentucky, such that the right-wing vote was floating under the radar.  Benjamin Knoll of Centre College ran an exit poll in Boyle County, which means he was catching people as they left the polls.  No need to filter his data for likely voters.  Yet the results of the exit poll showed a much higher Democratic vote than the actual election returns. (click for link)

LIK:  What's the implication for the Democratic Party after this election?  Do you think they move to the right?  Or run purer candidates?  Was Conway's loss caused by not exciting the base?

Voss:  After almost every election, the activists on the losing side complain about the same two things: The candidate was not ideologically pure enough, and their candidate ran a bad campaign.  They're almost always wrong about why they lost.

Yep, Jack Conway was a poor candidate, weak on the stump and terrible in debate.  But Matt Bevin, while a better public speaker, was worse at the craft of electioneering overall.  When the polls were forecasting a Conway win, commentators were reciting a litany of errors that Bevin had made -- and you'd better believe that's where the Republicans would be pointing if they'd lost.  Both sides offered flawed candidates.  The mistake here is thinking that campaigns and candidates determine election outcomes when usually they operate at the margins.

Ideology, on the other hand, shapes voter preferences -- so it can matter a lot.  But being purer, more extreme, will not help because the parties are already far apart ideologically.  Any rational voter concerned about the ideological direction of public policy faced a clear choice between Bevin and Conway.

Conway's challenge was to excite the center, the conservative Democrats and populist Republicans who are up for grabs in Kentucky because they're not so sure in which direction they'd like things to go.  Not all of those swing voters are centrists: Some face a tough choice because they are conservative on social and cultural issues, but fairly liberal on economic issues.  Those swing voters stayed undecided in large numbers until late in the election season, but many of them broke toward the Republicans in the final days.  In an era dominated by discussion of same-sex marriage and Planned Parenthood, perhaps that's not so surprising -- but their level of motivation sure was!

What should Kentucky Democrats do now?  I don't think it would be unwise to look for candidates who could have greater appeal out in the towns, in the countryside.  But don't rule out the possibility that the Democrats should change nothing at all.  The Republicans now have an inexperienced governor with strained relations inside his own party who has made a lot of promises that will be tough to keep and who will face a lot of problems not of his own making: a looming pension crisis, declining coal demand, crumbling infrastructure.  Republicans at the national level are not helping: They've been making a terrible spectacle of themselves in Congress, and because the Tea Party hasn't taken out Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell yet, it's not clear they're done eating their own.  Sometimes you just hunker down, offer solutions as the opposition party, and wait until voters decide they want a change.

LIK:  A follow up on the polling versus what happened:

What was this year about?  Was this anti-Obama sentiment?  Was this the general mood in the country?  Strange to throw the party in power out otherwise with unemployment hovering around 5% and gas prices around $2 a gallon?

Voss:  President Obama currently symbolizes the Democratic Party, but it's a mistake to suppose that once he exits the political stage, Kentuckians suddenly will become Democrats again.  Obama's race, and the fact he's a northern liberal, may make it somewhat easier to demonize the Democrats than if they had a white Southerner as figurehead -- but the party did not perform all that well here when John Kerry carried their standard, and not even campaign visits from the Clintons have made much of a dent in the Republican lean of the electorate.  Replacing Obama with Hillary Clinton might help some, but not as much as hoped by the observers who want to blame racism for the partisan swing here.

For Kentuckians to be impervious to economic indicators just backs up what I was saying earlier about social issues dominating this electorate.  Obama has not made the country better by their standards, even if the economy's on firmer footing.  He's presided over a powerful shift leftward in our cultural norms, and moral conservatives feel that the country's on the wrong track.  The Democratic Party is paying for that in a place like Kentucky even as they reap the rewards among other electorates.

Of course, the anti-Democratic shift has appeared in many places,  not just Kentucky.  Your question applies broadly: Why are the Democrats doing so badly when economic conditions have improved and, supposedly, "It's the economy, stupid."  Keep in mind, though, that these voters have not thrown the Democrats out of power.  They still hold the White House, and they're strongly represented in the federal courts.  Voters who want relatively moderate, compromise outcomes appreciate divided government as the best way to get something between the partisan extremes.  A government of Obama, McConnell, and Ryan is not conservative or Republican.  Put someone from the GOP in the White House and those same voters are likely to start feeling a lot more Democratic.

LIK:  What are the implications for the healthcare law?  Can Bevin pull Medicaid funding as a realistic option?  Is he a pragmatic candidate or an ideologue?

Voss:  People are stuck guessing what Governor-elect Bevin is going to do with Kentucky's implementation of the Affordable Care Act.  Gov. Beshear created that policy by unilateral executive action rather than by going through the law-making process, so ultimately Bevin should be able to tear it back down if he wants to do so.  The question is how much wiggle room the feds have given him to undo what Beshear did -- a question that ultimately might need to be settled in court -- and also how much wiggle room he has politically.  The Republicans he'll be leading do not speak with one voice on government programs, and the press will be more than happy to publicize any negative outcomes resulting from his policies.  It's time to start building political support if he wants to make a difference.

LIK:  This [type of policy providing government programs] used to work for the Democratic Party [in Kentucky] (Herald Leader article map) - especially under FDR.  What's happened to the electorate in Kentucky?  I'd have to glance at the map, some of this looks like old 5th territory - what are your thoughts?

Voss:  The party system of FDR's New Deal Era revolved around social class most of all.  Democrats started losing the South, though -- not to mention many working-class communities around other cities -- as economic issues gave way to the hot-button social issues that arose during the postwar era.  Many counties in eastern Kentucky always backed the Republican Party, a legacy of the Civil War period, but now GOP supporters appear all over the state.

LIK:  Yeah, Kentucky was an oddball post LBJ 1964 Civil Rights - being a pretty solidly white state - would you agree a bunch of the shift towards Republicans rode on Nixon's Southern Strategy?

Voss:  People misunderstand what the Southern Strategy actually accomplished.  Yes, the GOP tried to compete for voters, previously Democrats in the Solid South, who were upset with racial change and angry at spiking crime rates -- the racial conservatives.  (Nixon also targeted voters fearful of Communism and worried about student protesters.)  He attracted some of those votes in 1968, but he shared them with segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace, and while he may have swept them in 1972, it was a temporary result of his landslide victory.

What the Southern Strategy really accomplished was to serve as a catalyst, starting a reaction that broke apart Democratic dominance in the South.  Once two-party competition emerged in the early 70's, though, voters sorted themselves out based on considerations other than just race: initially social class, later moral and cultural issues such as abortion or gun control.  As late as 1991, former Klansman David Duke's gubernatorial bid in Louisiana drew as heavily from Democratic voters as from Republican voters.  Social conservatives have taken a long time to start identifying with the Republican Party, which is why what happened in the last election cycle still managed to surprise most observers.

LIK:  So wrapping this up, Dr. Voss.  Any predictions in the next 5, 10 and 20 years for Kentucky?

Kentucky isn't exactly Texas, although the demographics here seem to be sliding in a different direction (urban with a large influx of Hispanics in the last census).  This [Herald Leader Article on the 2010 Census] stat stood out with me:   "the number of Hispanic residents — up 112 percent since 2000."  

Voss:  I don't know how we project where the party system is headed right now.  The U.S. population has shifted dramatically both in terms of ideology and through population changes caused by loose migration policies.  Young people are still finding themselves politically.  Meanwhile, the financial and economic challenges look dire, but they have not hit home yet, so their political effects are uncertain.  We have no idea what the two major parties will be fighting about in five years, let alone longer, but today's obsessions likely will not stick around for long.  So although I cannot think of any phrase as trite as 'only time will tell,' that's really where we are with party politics in the near future.

LIK:  Thanks so much for your time.

Voss: Thanks ... was fun!

-Stephen Voss is a professor of political science at the University of Kentucky. He studies, writes and give commentary on Kentucky politics.

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