Swing States or Swing Nation? Swing States or Swing Nation?

Image courtesy of the NY Times

There is a really cool graphic in today’s 538 blog at the NY TImes that is making its way around the internet.  The graphic is creative and awfully pretty, but the focus on individual states as independent entities, “swinging” in response to individual presidential candidacies, is almost certainly wrong.

As Jim Stimson showed a decade ago in Tides of Consent, and Ben Page and Bob Shapiro (find me in the acknowledgements!) showed two decades ago in The Rational Public, the nation as a whole has swung in fairly consistent patterns between liberal and conservative policy positions.

Image courtesy of the Policy Mood project at UNC

What’s revealing to me in the Times figure is which states maintain a position consistently in the middle of the distribution, the consistent swing states, but also those states that move most in response to individual candidacies.

The ability to mouse over and view a state’s trajectory is very instructive.  I can imagine every state politics instructor today is showing this to his students.

But let’s not overstate the independent movement of individual states, as the authors do at the start:

The latest FiveThirtyEight forecast shows many states shifting to the right. Florida, North Carolina and Indiana are more likely than not to shift back to Republicans.

The nation as a whole is shifting slightly back to Romney.  We only pay attention to Florida, North Carolina, and Indiana because they are on the cusp.

I don’t want to suggest that there are not unique, idiosyncratic policy issues and ideological responses tied to a states history or political culture, but what I see primarily in the graphic is a reflection of policy mood, not states swinging back and forth on individual trajectories.

Election Laws and Turnout

Somehow I missed the publication of this article by Melanie Springer, “State Electoral Institutions and Voter Turnout In Presidential Elections, 1920–2000” in State Politics and Policy Quarterly (gated).

The abstract:

Expansive and restrictive state electoral institutions have been instrumental in structuring the vote throughout American history. Studies focused on a small number of reforms, years, or states lack the scope necessary to comprehensively evaluate the effects of institutional change over time. This work, however, places recent reforms in historical context and offers a long-term perspective. Using an original data set, it identifies the institutions that have generated the most substantial effects on state turnout rates during presidential elections from 1920 to 2000. Findings demonstrate that restrictive laws (those aiming to limit the vote or make voting more costly) produced large and consistently negative effects in the Southern and non-Southern states alike, but the effects associated with expansive reforms (those making participation more convenient or less costly) vary. Although a few expansive laws have increased turnout in the non-Southern states, they have had no effect in the Southern states where turnout rates are lowest.

My Voter File Moment at Vanderbilt My Voter File Moment at Vanderbilt

My day in Nashville has been wonderful–thanks again to John Geer and the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions for hosting me.

My lecture had one lowlight and one highlight.  I wonder if the highlight is shared by my good friends in the elections community such as Doug Chapin, Charles Stewart, Dan Smith, and others.

The lowlight is easy: I never realized that this was a course on elections, not introductory American politics!  When I answered in response to a question that the demographic profile of the early voter mirrored many of the biases in American politics that they have “read about in the interest groups chapter”–even using the  “what accent the heavenly chorus” quote from Schattschneider–I wonder if the students knew what class they were in.

To Geer’s credit, he told me afterward that the students will probably be panicked, and maybe that’s a good thing! Continue reading

Ballot Tracking in NC Ballot Tracking in NC

I am heading off to Vanderbilt University tomorrow to lecture to John Geer‘s introductory American politics class, and I am pretty sure there will be a relative in the audience!

I have been slashing away at the North Carolina absentee ballot file tonight, just to show the students what kind of ballot tracking goes in under the early voting regime.

One thing I stress at this point: there is not a lot to be learned.  I know reporters love to see these early numbers as indicators of something about the campaign, but we are talking about only 134,00o total ballot requests, and as you can see by the figure, only about a quarter have been returned.

The total expected turnout in North Carolina is well over four million.

In short, this ain’t a lot of ballots.  The pictures are pretty, but there is not a lot you can conclude.

P.S. To my Political Science 311 students: you’ll be generating these graphs after break!

Reporter’s FAQ for Early Voting

I did some interviews in 2008… a LOT of interviews.  We lost track eventually, but the contacts were well past 500 and total appearances past 1000.  I’ve been doing a lot fewer this year, in part because I don’t have two assistants working for me–Eva is working in San Francisco for the World Affairs Council and James is at Boalt Law School.

A second reason, though, is that I’m fielding the same questions as I did four years ago.  We used to have an Early Voting FAQ that seems to have gotten lost in our website redesign.

In that spirit, the most common questions I get: Continue reading

Early voting, democratic theory, and abominations

Image courtesy of ComicVine.com

abomination [əˌbɒmɪˈneɪʃən]


1. a person or thing that is disgusting
2. an action that is vicious, vile, etc.
3. intense loathing
Francis Wilkinson doesn’t like early voting.  Clearly.  But an “abomination”?  That brings to mind a genetically mutated Godzilla monster destroying our democratic system.
Is that really what early voting does? Continue reading