Calcified Democracy

A deep dive into why our politics are so broken.

The 28 October edition of the Ezra Klein Show, “These Political Scientists Surveyed 500,000 Voters. Here Are Their Unnerving Conclusions.” was excellent. It’s an interview with political scientists John Side and Lynn Vavreck regarding on their latest book, which is based on hundreds of hours of longitudinal interviews with voters. It reinforces and adds nuance to some longstanding themes here but also points to ways that Donald Trump changed the American political landscape and, as usual, Klein is a subtle interviewer, probing into the right points to expand and push back.

Given the length (it’s a 95-minute listen and the transcript is some 60 pages!) excerpting is perilous and likely to put off some readers. I will nonetheless try to highlight insights I gleaned from the conversation. Caveat: I don’t intend to represent this as everything said on a particular issue; I frequently jump into the middle of a response to get at the meat of it.

A running theme is the “calcification” of American politics in recent years.


[J]ust like it does in the human body, calcification makes our politics rigid and inflexible. And it is a long time in the making. There are a number of components to it, which I hope we’ll get to talk about a little bit as we spend time together. But mostly, you can think of this as a long-sorting and reshuffling of people into the parties. Within parties, people are more alike than ever. And between the parties, there’s more distance than ever.

And then more recently, we have shifted the dimension of conflict that we’re fighting over from the New Deal sorts of issues and onto identity-inflected issues, which are very divisive and very personal.
And then the last component, Democrats and Republicans are in rough balance in the electorate. And you mash all that together and you get this state of politics that, despite what’s happening around us, people know what kind of world they want to live in, and they don’t want to live in the other side’s world.


We cite a book by the political scientist, Frances Lee, called “Insecure Majorities,” which points out that whether we’re looking at the White House, at the House, or at the Senate, control is up for grabs in almost every election, the same way both chambers are up for grabs in 2022. So as a consequence, you have very small shifts from election to election in what voters are doing, but you might get very big shifts in which party is in power because the balance of power is so narrowly divided.

And in fact, in some ways, we think that this partisan parity probably makes calcification even more likely because if you think that have a chance, as a party, of regaining power two years away, there’s not much incentive for you, after you’ve lost a presidential election, let’s say, to try to rethink the party’s image, to rebrand, to have that kind of self-reflective process that you saw, for example, the Republicans have after they lost in 2012.

We’ve written a lot here over the last few years about the increased sorting and polarization but not so much about the parity issue. Indeed, Steven and I continually argue that the electorate is considerably more Democratic-leaning and electoral outcomes as tight as they are because of Republican voter suppression efforts and the weirdness of our system. Still, given the rules of the game, the fact that almost every election seems to be a toss-up skews the incentives considerably.

Klein makes a point that we’ve made here over and over but that’s nonetheless easy to forget:

So one thing I think embedded in there is that the Republican and Democratic parties we have today are not the ones we had 15 years ago, 30 years ago, 70 years ago, 100 years ago. And I think this is pretty easy to miss. The stability of their names makes it sound like what we are describing in politics is more similar era to era than it actually is.

On the way to setting up an important point:

You all have a really striking chart in the book in which you show voters answer to the question, do you perceive major differences between the parties? And in 1952, only 50 percent did. Only half of voters thought there was a major difference between Democrats and Republicans. By 2020, it was 90 percent. Lynn, tell me a bit about that and how that changes politics.


People understand. They get it. The other side is really far away. And the world they want to make is really different than the one I want to live in. And so in the past, when that other world wasn’t quite so different, especially on the things that were priorities for people — size and role of government, tax rate, how involved should the government be in my life — if the other side wasn’t so far away on those kinds of things, maybe you could drift in an election or two or in a race or two. You could vote for the other side.

That there’s “not a dime’s worth of difference” between the parties has been a talking point going back to at least George Wallace’s 1968 Presidential run. Hell, it’s part of the reason that some on the left voted for Ralph Nader rather than Al Gore in 2000 and some Bernie Bros voted for Jill Stein or even Donald Trump in 2016. But, increasingly, the vast preponderance of the electorate sees the outcome of each election as existential. We don’t have two catch-all parties anymore but two radically different ideological parties.

Sides uses immigration policy to illustrate the point:

You go back and you look at these polls from the 1960s, into the ’70s, into the ’80s, into the ’90s, and there’s just very few differences between Republicans and Democrats in their views on this question. It’s just not that polarized. And that mimics, to some extent, the way that elites were starting to vote in — especially in the 1965 bill. It just wasn’t as polarizing an issue.

In the 2000s, that starts to change. And people who live through this era will start to remember, I think, that there was certainly more pushback within the Republican Party, especially from more conservative Republicans, to different kinds of proposals to reform immigration. George W. Bush tried to do this and failed. Couldn’t even convince his own party to get behind it. So you start to see a gap opening up where Democrats look more supportive of immigration, more willing to increase it.

By the eve of when Trump’s going to become a presidential candidate, you’re talking about a difference of, say, 30 percent of Democrats want to increase immigration, 11 percent of Republican. So a 19 or 20-percentage point gap. But that accelerates so quickly once Trump becomes president. In part, we argue this is Democrats reacting to Trump’s agenda. So they are updating their views on immigration in the opposite direction that they think Trump is taking the country.

And so the polarization on that question grows between 2015 and 2021, over about five or six years, grows as much, if not more, than it did in the previous two decades. It’s that quick. It’s that fast. And that’s the shock that we think that the Trump presidency helped to create in the country in terms of moving people rapidly.

This sets up a discussion that runs for much of the rest of the interview: the degree to which directionality is not what one would think. For many, if not most, Americans, their stated views on the issues is driven by their party affiliation rather than, as would seem logical, vice-versa. It’s why so many Republicans seems to turn on a dime from so many ostensibly long-held views once Donald Trump became the standard-bearer.

Klein weighs in:

And you can really see this if you go back into the rhetoric. Democrats love putting out the Ronald Reagan quote where he says, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.” I mean, Democrats love Ronald Reagan on immigration.

And at the same time, if you look at Bill Clinton’s party platforms, they basically sound like the Republican Party under Donald Trump. I mean, they are very, very border enforcement-focused. Even if you look at Barack Obama’s 2008 platform, no Democrat nationally could get away with that platform today, given, again, how focused it is on immigration as a threat, on how focused it is on enforcement.

He ties up another discussion point:

You all have some useful data about the ways in which people’s feelings towards their own party haven’t changed that much, but their feelings towards the other party have changed a lot.


They’ve always liked their side. Maybe they like their side marginally a little more now. But they dislike the other side more than ever.

And they think that people on the other side are unpatriotic and immoral relative to average Americans. And so there’s this summary judgment about people like that, people in that group are just not good people. And that is not new, but it is happening more now than it has in the past.


Part of the challenge, by the way, with that, Ezra, is that these perceptions of the opposite side are basically exaggerated. When you ask Republicans to describe the demographic composition of the Democratic Party, they thought that almost half of Democrats are Black, which is about twice the actual number. And Democrats, for their part, they thought that almost half of the Republican Party was wealthy, made at least $250,000 a year, when, in fact, of course, only about 2 percent of the Republican Party is that wealthy. So part of what’s happening here — I mean, Ezra — and you can see this in the way I think that our political priorities are presented to us in news coverage and elsewhere is that when people are asked these questions about the political party, the people that they tend to call to mind when they think about who is this political party I’m being asked to evaluate, they tend to be people who are more ideologically extreme, more activist, maybe political leaders themselves to some extent.

There’s a whole lot more on that before Klein turns the conversation back to the topic of polarization. And Sides points to something I find fascinating on that front:

Lynn and our co-author Chris Tausanovitch designed a set of experiments where each respondent to the survey is presented with two sets of policy positions, maybe three or four positions in each set, and each position has its opposite in the other set.

So let’s say the set that you got is let’s have a Green New Deal, let’s have a border wall with Mexico, and let’s raise the minimum wage. And then the other package is no Green New Deal, no border wall, and no minimum wage increase. So the question is, which of those two do you prefer?

So you have to make a trade-off, right? Because if you’re a liberal, you’re not getting what you want. I mean, you don’t want a border wall even though you might want to increase the minimum wage.

So we’ve asked people to make these choices over and over again. And we randomly assign which issues show up in each of the two packages. And they do this choice 10 different times every week of the survey. And so we’re accumulating all of these experimental results.

And what you can back out of that is how important is each issue. If that issue — if that position — if increase the minimum wage is in the set, how much does that increase the likelihood that you are going to take that set? So it’ll show you which are the most important issues.

When we did this in these surveys, what pops to the top are issues like do you want to impeach Donald Trump or not? And Republicans really don’t want to impeach Trump, and they think that’s the most important issue. Banning guns, having reparations for slavery, late-term abortions, building a border wall — those are the things that came to the top for Republicans.

Much further down are the issues that you were describing where you think, oh, there are some interesting liberal tendencies among some Republican voters. Isn’t there a potential for some sort of bipartisan compromise on increasing taxes on the wealthy? No, because that’s just simply not a high priority.

We saw the same thing for Democrats. To a large extent, it was kind of the same issues that would pop to the top. It wasn’t the stuff that, oftentimes, even the presidential candidates were talking about. It wasn’t the agenda that was focused on the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, those kinds of policies. Again, it’s not that those are unimportant. It’s just that they don’t rise to the top.

So to some extent, our argument is that I think what helps keep the parties stuck where they are is that not only do they have different views on lots of issues, but the issues that they care about the most are also the issues on which they have the largest disagreements.

This is absolutely huge. The conventional wisdom—which is not wrong—is that Democrats and Republicans agree on way more issues than they disagree on. Which should make compromise really easy. But that’s hugely complicated by radically different prioritization and saliency.

And, again, it really helps explain the thing that so frustrates most OTB readers: that relatively few longtime Republicans have turned away from the party after it radicalized. Steven did it before I did, deciding that he couldn’t stomach Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. For me, it took Donald Trump. But neither of us prioritized, say, abortion or gun rights above all other issues.

You can absolutely condemn people for putting a desire to limit abortions or to keep their guns over the sanctity of our democracy and the rule of law. But for those who value those things above all else—and who see those who want the opposite things as existential threats to their value systems—it’s perfectly understandable.

One of the things that makes Klein such a fascinating character is his willingness to challenge his own deeply held beliefs:

[W]hen I wrote my book on polarization, as you know, I have a lot in there about political psychology and the way much of politics is an abstraction — what should we think about currency manipulation in China, or what should we think about the proper policy towards Russia, or what should we think about what’s going on in the broad global climate and how that will change in the future.

But one of the things I believed nevertheless was that the less abstract policy becomes, the more tangible it becomes, the more people will vote on those outcomes. So if you get a direct check from the government, that is very different than a vague sense of macroeconomic management. And if your friends and neighbors and family are dying from a pandemic, that that is the kind of thing that will break through political polarization. And that’s not what we see. Why do you think it’s not what we see?


Yeah, it is another one of these astonishing moments of 2020 data analysis. And I think that the best way that we can describe it is to say that all of these moments in 2020 and 2021 that are unexpected and shocking — Covid, the murder of George Floyd, the social justice movement that follows, the Capitol insurrection — these unexpected events in 2020 get subsumed by this new dimension of conflict, this identity dimension.

And some of that is because Donald Trump, for Covid, goes out — for the first three weeks or so, there is partisan unity on Covid mitigation. Everybody is staying home, largely because they have to. But washing their hands more, canceling travel. Both parties, lots of support for Covid mitigation.

Trump quickly, I think, figures out that this is bad for me. If the economy doesn’t come back, I lose. And so he goes out and says, hey, liberate Michigan. Take your state back. Tell your governors you want to go back to work. And in that moment, when he makes Covid about your personal rights to be able to work, it reorients right into this new dimension of conflict.

Sides (at a later point in the conversation):

There’s a deep irony in that, by the way, Ezra, as far as Trump is concerned, because it’s absolutely true that when his rhetoric changes between March and April 2020, Republican support for these kinds of restrictions, like travel restrictions or closing certain businesses, starts to decline following along with what he says.

We all witnessed this in real time. Theoretically, there’s nothing better to unite a divided country than a shared crisis. It happened, if only temporarily, with the 9/11 attacks, for example. It seemed to be happening with COVID, with pretty much everyone taking a reasonably professional approach to the problem, listening to the experts and acting according to our best information. But that quickly changed when Trump led in a wildly different direction.


And the same thing is going to happen with the murder of George Floyd and the Capitol insurrection. There are brief moments of unity followed just very quickly by the separation that already exists. And that’s how powerful the separation between the parties and the parity in the electorate — that’s how powerful calcification is.

I think BLM was already pretty polarized by the time of the Floyd attack but, again, the parties were much less divided on the Capitol riot on January 6 than they would be just days later. And that division has grown, not narrowed, as the Committee investigation has provided more evidence.

Sides notes that Trump’s leadership failures likely cost him but only at the margins:

The irony is that the other thing that follows along is his popularity starts to decline. He had a brief moment when he started taking the pandemic more seriously in March, his approval rating actually crept up a few notches, which is not typical for him. But then it comes back down and barely recovers by the end of the fall campaign.

And when we compare Trump to other world leaders, we compared him to approval ratings of all the US governors, I mean, one of the things that emerges is that for a lot of politicians, the pandemic actually becomes a political opportunity. They’re able to leverage that crisis to enhance their own political fortunes, which is, of course, the typical pattern in lots of different kinds of crises.

And so Trump, in some sense, was presented with a chance. And all he probably needed to do was just continue to maintain that level of concern and seriousness. And it might not even have mattered how bad the pandemic got. I mean, there were certainly politicians, like Andrew Cuomo in New York, who benefited politically, even as their state was experiencing some of the worst parts of the outbreak early on.

So for us, I think, one of the interesting things about Covid is it gets subsumed into these partisan battles, as Lynn was saying. And when there was a moment for Trump to act differently, it was clear it might have helped him politically. But ultimately, he wasn’t able to follow through and continue in that vein. And at the end of the day, that might have been ultimately what helped keep him from leveraging the pandemic to actually maybe even get re-elected.

This is the frustrating part of the argument for me, even though I don’t disagree with it. Essentially, our politics are calcified because of how polarization and parity play off of one another. But this means that the elusive “swing voter” would seem to matter way more than recent conventional wisdom suggests—even though there are fewer of them!

Klein takes us there:

I think one way of reading the story — to me, the correct, depressing way — is almost a lull nothing matters. You can govern almost as badly as you want, and it will not do you very much damage.

But because the parties are so closely matched, because the election is so close in key battleground states, Lynn, you end up with a situation where very, very small shifts — just doing a good enough job to get another point in the polls, which is nothing in terms of public opinion, might have been enough for Donald Trump to win the election. So maybe actually how he governed really, really mattered, even though it only mattered to a few people.


It’s I think even — I don’t want to say more anxiety provoking than that — but the way I think about this is that it’s not that there are no swing voters out there, persuadable voters. Of course, there are. There are probably fewer of them than there have been in the past.

But those voters who are undecided, especially in an era where 9 out of 10 people can see important differences between the parties, voters who are undecided are less interested in politics. They pay less attention. They have a harder time making sense of the political world in a partisan way.

And all of that means that the kinds of stuff you just talked about — what has this party done for me lately? How is the country doing generally? Is the economy growing or shrinking? These moments where you say, am I better off than I was four years ago? Reward the incumbent party or punish it? Those kinds of judgments, those are what these swing voters are relying on.

So, essentially, the decision is made—to the extent any given contest is competitive at all, a point continually missed in this conversation—it’s made by a tiny handful of persuadable voters. But those are also the least engaged, least informed voters!

And Klein notes that it’s actually worse than that:

Well, what’s extraordinarily frustrating to me about that, John, is that you want politics to have larger forces of accountability than that. I mean, in many ways, Donald Trump, as a politician, does almost everything he can to turn the electorate against him. You all track how his personal comportment is quite unpopular, the way he insults people, his erraticness.

A lot of Republicans who vote for him or even say they support him for president and the job he’s doing, they don’t really like or admire him personally. But you might think, oh, OK, then what’s going on with Donald Trump is he’s a ill-tempered, competent executive. [LAUGHS] Like a C.E.O. you don’t like, but you’ve got to admit the guy’s doing a good job and running things efficiently.

But not only do people not think that, but you all have evidence in the book that Trump’s policies, the things he actually pushed, as opposed to the things he would sometimes talk about doing, were very unpopular. His major legislation was less popular than the policies of really any president in the last 30-plus years. And then in addition, he does a terrible job, I think, broadly — I think this is broadly agreed upon — managing Covid. And yet ends up like a hair’s breath from winning re-election.

But, again, this is a function of an otherwise fantastic discussion among incredibly bright, informed folks totally ignoring institutions. It’s not just that the contest comes down to motivating unpersuadable voters to show up and that there are only a relatively tiny number of persuadable voters. It’s that most of the 435 Congressional Districts, most of the 100 Senate seats, and most of the 50 winner-take-all states* and the District of Columbia in Presidential elections are essentially decided in the party primaries. That, not just calcification, diminishes accountability.

One last point worth highlighting.


I think it is a mistake to underestimate the degree to which temperament and vibes matter, particularly given how much data you two and your discipline has assembled over time on the way that we will ultimately rearrange our specific political views to accord to the politicians who, for whatever reason, we choose to like.

Part of what’s unique about this moment is the real distinctiveness between the two parties in the kind of world they want to deliver to voters and the fact that voters see that. And so I think to say that statements about policies like the wall, like abortion, like immigration are metaphors, that’s just not where we are at this moment in time.


Ezra, you started this question by asking what education means when we divide voters based on their formal education levels and compare them. What is that tapping into?


[A]t least one thing for white voters that education is doing is it’s proxying values and beliefs related to minority racial and ethnic groups, much more so than it was proxying their economic situations or their economic insecurity. It didn’t. The economic insecurity didn’t play the same role when we tried to see if that was an explanation for this growing diploma divide.


You could also argue, I think, plausibly — I’m not actually going to disagree with you that there is a symbolic nature to the way that politicians present themselves and govern, which we could call toughness or we could link it to some other kinds of attributes. And it may be that some voters are attracted to that. So it’s not in that case about, oh, I learned what that politician wants to do in terms of legislation and I voted for the politician whose legislation I like better. It’s really about hearing the politicians talk and perceiving them in terms of their personas or their personalities.

I think that’s perfectly plausible. I think what you’ve hit upon really now is just one of the limitations of our research, ours and others, in terms of our ability to really nail down these factors. It’s pretty overdetermined because there are lots of ways in which Latinos who voted for Trump in 2020 are different from Latinos who didn’t.

As to why Biden outperformed Hillary Clinton, Sides explains:

Part of the story is he’s doing better among voters who are left-leaning. And these voters tend to be disproportionately represented among white voters who have more formal education, which is part of the diploma divide. They tend to be located in certain kinds of communities. So particularly suburban communities. You’ve seen the maps around Atlanta and other similar Metropolitan areas and the shifts there that were helping Biden.

So I think part of the story clearly is that these voters have reacted, I think, against Trump to some extent based on their own ideas and beliefs and ended up in Biden’s camp, in the Democratic Party’s camp perhaps going forward, as a consequence of Trump and the way that he framed a lot of political issues and debates that just didn’t strike these voters as particularly palatable or plausible.

Vavreck adds:

One of the ways to think about this, Ezra, might be to go back and think about the way we used to think about campaigns and elections. What is this election about? So when we think about 1984, we say, oh, it was about the economy. Are you better off than you were four years ago? And we think about 2008, global financial crisis. 2012, referendum on the Democrats’ performance and getting out of the financial crisis.

We tend to try to reduce it down to what was this fight about. And I think what we’re saying is that the 2020 “fight,” quote unquote, it could have been about Covid. That whole election could have been about Covid. It wasn’t. The fight was finishing off the battle, the sorting that had started in 2016 on these identity-inflected things.

And it starts in 2016. The ideology and party nexus gets clarified during Trump’s presidency, such that the 2020 election, despite all of the astonishing things that happen in the year, is really just about finishing off that sorting. And there aren’t very many people left to sort. But the ones who do, are doing it on that dimension. And maybe that’s kind of the way to think about the remaining moves in 2020.

All in all, a lot of confusing signals here.


*Minus maybe one vote in Nebraska and Maine.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Democracy, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Chris says:

    Calcification? How about zombie apocalypse! It’s as if those aligning with the sentiments of Charles Guiteau and Leon Czolgosz have crawled out from the political burial grounds and populated the ranks of the GOP to the horror of those who were used to parrying with the likes of William Buckley and George Will. God help our kids from the world us baby boomers are leaving behind.

  2. Scott F. says:

    Thank you for pointing us to this interview, James. I’m going to have to find 90 minutes to listen to the whole thing.

    But, there’s an idea in your excerpts that really resonated with me right away:

    And then more recently, we have shifted the dimension of conflict that we’re fighting over from the New Deal sorts of issues and onto identity-inflected issues, which are very divisive and very personal.
    And then the last component, Democrats and Republicans are in rough balance in the electorate. And you mash all that together and you get this state of politics that, despite what’s happening around us, people know what kind of world they want to live in, and they don’t want to live in the other side’s world.

    This assessment goes to the heart of the commentary that attached to recent OTB posts on media bias and the nationalization of politics. And while I’m confident that people truly know what kind of world they want to live in, how realistically the other side’s world is defined is of critical importance. In the end information/misinformation drives all of it.

    In the late 80’s / early 90’s, I would define my political affiliation as Pragmatist. I’m a problem solver by trade, so I’m a technocrat ideologically – if we can agree on what the problem is, then we should be able to find solutions and settle political disagreements based on the outcomes. But now, I affiliate as a full-blown Democratic partisan. (Though I firmly believe that isn’t because of an ideological shift on my part.)

    But, if I genuinely believed that the Democrats were a Satanist cabal that drank children’s blood, or that drag queens could change someone’s sexual orientation simply by reading to them at the public library, or that my status as a white citizen would irreparably and calamitously collapse to when my race is no longer the majority in the US, you bet I would vote a straight Republican ballot, even if Hitler himself was on the top of the ticket.

    On the other hand, if I brought myself to accept that other’s world wouldn’t be an awful, hideous place to live day to day, it would be much harder for me to justify supporting more radicalism from my side.

  3. Andy says:

    I have family in town this week, so not much time for commenting, but I wants to pop in and say that it’s an excellent podcast and the excerpts above are just a taste and don’t really do it justice.

  4. Tony W says:

    Re: Biden (2020) vs. Clinton (2016) performance, I think they vastly underestimate the role of misogyny in the outcome/success of the candidates.

  5. Andy says:

    @Tony W:

    Maybe, but you also had historic numbers of people vote for third-party candidates – almost 6% of the vote when normally it is 1-2%. That speaks to just how crappy both candidates were, and how they failed to appeal to that decisive cohort of voters.

  6. Modulo Myself says:

    This is ponderous garbage. The GOP shed its moderate wing and emerged out of the wasteland of the Moral Majority, Fox News, the Iraq War, and the free market-engineered financial collapse with Trump and birtherism at its head and terrified of voting, Obama, and the world, and that’s all there is to it.

    These arguments about polarization are just white noise for people who don’t want to admit the truth. It’s like saying the reason that climate denialism ended up in the GOP is because the Democrats believed in climate change or that Covid denialist sunk just as deep because of partisanship. Anyone who believes this stuff is trying to find a way to write-off the actual darkness in America.

  7. gVOR08 says:


    Part of what’s unique about this moment is the real distinctiveness between the two parties in the kind of world they want to deliver to voters and the fact that voters see that.

    This is excellent. I skimmed past it when it came out, I’ll be revisiting it today. And Klein is great, an insightful writer and, as you point out, a probing but fair interviewer. But this quote hits a sore spot.

    There is indeed a real distinctiveness between the world R voters and D voters want. But there is also a real distinctiveness between the world R voters want and the world R elites want. One that is not mirrored on the D side. Do R voters really want a world in which the wealthy and corporations pay little or no taxes? A world with minimal safety or health regulation and rising carbon output? A world in which SS and Medicare are gutted? A world in which their votes don’t count either? ‘Cause that’s what they’re really voting for.

  8. Mikey says:


    Do R voters really want a world in which the wealthy and corporations pay little or no taxes? A world with minimal safety or health regulation and rising carbon output? A world in which SS and Medicare are gutted? A world in which their votes don’t count either? ‘Cause that’s what they’re really voting for.

    “The salient fact of American politics is that there are fifty to seventy million voters each of [whom] will volunteer to live, with his family, in a cardboard box under an overpass, and cook sparrows on an old curtain rod, if someone would only guarantee that the black, gay, Hispanic, liberal, whatever, in the next box over doesn’t even have a curtain rod, or a sparrow to put on it.” – Davis X. Machina

  9. gVOR08 says:

    @Mikey: Indeed. That quote goes back to 2009. Demonstrating once again, it ain’t just Trump.

  10. gVOR08 says:

    @Andy: Sorry, but I have to disagree. In 2016 we had one crappy candidate and one very good candidate who had been very successfully slimed by the GOP smear machine.

  11. Jen says:

    The excerpts are interesting and I’m going to need to carve out some time to listen to the full podcast.

    This statement, I both agree with (to some degree) and disagree with (to some degree):

    So one thing I think embedded in there is that the Republican and Democratic parties we have today are not the ones we had 15 years ago, 30 years ago, 70 years ago, 100 years ago.

    Yes, clearly things are different now than they were 100 or 70, or even 30 years ago, and that’s reflected in our policies, which in turn affects parties. As JKB will no doubt trot out at some point, Democrats were behind Jim Crow Era policies and legislation. Those days are long gone.

    On the other hand, the Republican party was well on its way of being Trump-ready 30 years ago. This piece from KBIA was of great interest to me, because much of the focus on when things turned during the period that I was working in Republican politics. I saw the move toward rural and religious voters. I heard the deep distrust in those who were college-educated, even as rural voters stated clearly they wanted their kids to go to college–but didn’t want them to change, or leave permanently. I’d argue that the Republican Party is pretty close to what it started to become 30 years ago, it’s just that leadership (aka “party elites”) didn’t realize what was happening.


    That speaks to just how crappy both candidates were

    Ugh, this again. I’ll grant a bit that she wasn’t a great campaigner, but there was some misogyny at work there too. No makeup? “She looks sick, probably not up for the job.” Bad hair day? “Ugh, she looks awful.” Makes a sharp point at a debate? “How emotional.” Doesn’t make a sharp point at a debate? “She just doesn’t seem to have a handle on things.” I truly, genuinely don’t think that most men understand the goddamn tightrope women have to walk in professional settings. That goes for campaigning as well.

    As a reminder, Secretary of State Clinton had very high approval ratings. Senator Clinton did as well.

    People liked her when she was in a job and clearly doing it well–but trying for a job, what do we hear: “I just don’t see her as President.”

  12. steve says:

    I dont know how you can see Hillary as a good candidate. She had Bill’s bad traits without his good ones. They did engage in a lot of questionable schemes and there is no denying that their foundation did good work but that they also ended up rich, at least partially due to the foundation. She was not a good campaigner. She didnt just lose to Trump, she also lost to Obama when she had every advantage you could want and he was pretty much an unknown. So, yes she did get slimed some but so did Bill. He had the skills to overcome that and she didnt, but to be fair there were also at that point several years of questionable money making in her past that Bill didnt have to account for. I can still see voting for her since Trump was much worse but she was not really a good candidate I think.


  13. gVOR08 says:


    I dont know how you can see Hillary as a good candidate.

    Because she’d have been a good president, which is supposed to matter. But yes, as with many other things, one should clarify whether one is speaking about good wrt/ governance or wrt/ politics. As to how good she was politically, whatever your issues, she did beat the fundamentals models and won the popular vote. Not enough, but hardly an anti-Hillary landslide.

  14. Andy says:


    Sorry, but I have to disagree. In 2016 we had one crappy candidate and one very good candidate who had been very successfully slimed by the GOP smear machine.

    Well, OK, but it seems that even most Democrats don’t think Clinton was a good candidate. And the number of third-party votes speaks for itself.


    People liked her when she was in a job and clearly doing it well–but trying for a job, what do we hear: “I just don’t see her as President.”

    No doubt there was some misogyny. How much that mattered is, at best, uncertain. There were, for example, a lot of people who voted for Jill Stein. If Clinton had held onto those, she would have won the election. I think we can safely say that the people voting for Jill Stein weren’t doing so because of misogyny.

    Even most Democrats admit Clinton made a lot of mistakes. Her errors were pretty big and pretty obvious. The evidence for those errors costing her the election is much greater than misogyny being the reason.

    Anyway, the point in all of this is that the marginal voter matters a great deal. The number of people who are swing voters is likely smaller than it used to be, but they are still often decisive.

  15. charon says:


    Andy’s claim about misogyny is also wrong. I have examined the internals of the exit polling compared to earlier elections and the misogyny is clearly shown.

  16. charon says:


    As far as being portrayed as someone she is not by the GOP/ conservative media slime machine, the New York Times was also mighty effective.

  17. Jen says:

    Re: “very good candidate”

    I think there are two definitions of this being used in this discussion.

    A good candidate can mean great qualifications. A good candidate can also mean a good campaigner.

    Hillary was extremely well qualified=good candidate.
    Hillary was NOT a good campaigner=not a good candidate.

    Ideally, your party’s candidate is both qualified AND a good campaigner.

  18. Gustopher says:


    In 2016 we had one crappy candidate and one very good candidate who had been very successfully slimed by the GOP smear machine.

    The job of the candidate is to shake off that slime. Clinton was not good at that.

    She may have been a fine President if given the chance (although, again, shaking off the slime is part of that job too), but she was not a good candidate.

  19. Kathy says:


    Schrodinger’s Candidate: the candidate is both good and bad until you measure the electoral results and collapse the wave function.

  20. Michael Cain says:


    I dont know how you can see Hillary as a good candidate.

    Because she’d have been a good president, which is supposed to matter.

    On the first point, in addition to the Obama and Trump arguments that have been made, she underperformed “generic Democrat” when running for the Senate seat from New York.

    Re the second, no. Part of her problem with the first point is that she always believes she is the smartest person in the room, and cannot let a chance to prove it go by. The President needs to be a brilliant manager, not a details-oriented policy wonk. But Hillary Clinton would have been absolutely, positively, without the slightest doubt, best White House Chief of Staff in history. (Much as I like Elizabeth Warren, it is clear she struggles somewhat with the same problem.)

  21. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @gVOR08: Actually, we had one crappy candidate and one remarkably polarizing candidate–some of that polarization being misogynically driven, to be sure, but polarizing all the same. The fact that said candidate was smeared and would be was a known proposition for 2 decades or more and still said candidate ran.

    The smear machine isn’t the problem.

  22. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Jen: Additionally, I recall a certain amount of “I just don’t see her as a senator” and “she moved to where she did because they’ll vote for ANY democrat there.” And there was also some noise when she was chosen as SoS, but I don’t remember it as clearly. She’s definitely an acquired taste as personalities go, and people keep ending up having to admit that she’s not riding her husband’s coat tails (another popular accusation over the years).

  23. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Frankly, I’d never vote for her for anything because she was part of the team that did the hatchet job on the finest American servant of our generation in destroying the career of Richard M. Nixon.*

    (But yeah, Trump has been the cause of all the change in the GOP. 😉 )

    *By the way, that part sounds snarky, but I really do feel that way about her at least partially for the reason given. I know Nixon wasn’t great at the job, particularly related to the economy, but I will always have misgivings about Watergate. I just don’t care about the crime there–50 years later.

  24. Rick DeMent says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    The smear machine isn’t the problem.

    It is when said smear machine is the only real reason for the unpopularity of the candidate. This is a woman who had something like a 60% favorability as a Secretary of state nationally. At one point she was more popular then Obama.

    Isn’t that the problem? I mean give me a budget of a couple million dollars and I’ll have people wanting to literally string you up on sight within in a week.

  25. wr says:

    @Andy: “Well, OK, but it seems that even most Democrats don’t think Clinton was a good candidate.”

    Well, yeah. Because she lost. If she’d won, she’d be considered the great candidate of her day. That’s always how it works.

  26. gVOR08 says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: How do you feel about all the other shit on Nixon that surfaced when they started looking? There was a list of charges unrelated to Watergate. Not to mention the suspicion that Ford’s blanket pardon covered up crimes implicating other Republicans. And don’t get me started on Nixon, Kissinger, and the Chennault affair.

  27. DK says:


    I dont know how you can see Hillary as a good candidate.

    I don’t understand why the majority of white men continue to be so very wrong about Hillary Clinton. It’s truly a pathology some sort of character flaw. And has done grave damage to the country.

    They were wrong about her in 2016, and they’re still –stubbornly and arrogantly — wrong. And now we are all reaping the consequences of their refusal to listen to black voters.

  28. DK says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    She’s definitely an acquired taste as personalities go*

    *To old white guys, and incels with mommy issues.

    The rest of us disagree.

  29. DK says:

    @Michael Cain:

    Part of her problem with the first point is that she always believes she is the smartest person in the room, and cannot let a chance to prove it go by.

    Lol no man who runs for the presidency believes this. Paragons of intellectual humility, the guys we elect for president.

    Y’all should listen to yourselves from the outside. Not pretty.

  30. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Rick DeMent: You don’t even need a budget of $10 to get a group of people who literally want to string ME up. But if you want to go with smear machine as THE REASON, by all means, knock yourself out.

    I’d have been glad to say “damn, she’s pretty good at this” if things had worked out for her. I’m not going to vote for her. Ever. I don’t recall ever having voted for a Democrat and when Republicans became unpalatable, I didn’t switch to the less poisonous choice. I stopped choosing.

    So let’s say the set that you got is let’s have a Green New Deal, let’s have a border wall with Mexico, and let’s raise the minimum wage. And then the other package is no Green New Deal, no border wall, and no minimum wage increase. So the question is, which of those two do you prefer?

    Easy peasy. Neither. And if the condition is that I have to pick one, I’m only a single voice. My one voice matters for nothing (especially if those are the only choices). You guys can pick and I’ll just live–or not.

    (Incidentally, I suspect this is how things work in various authoritarian countries. People who just want to survive are left alone as much as possible. It’s the people who want better that are the problem. I don’t have that problem in the US anymore. There isn’t a better.)

  31. DK says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    The smear machine isn’t the problem.

    Whyte male voters are the problem.

  32. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @gVOR08: I generally don’t care. I take it as a given that politicians are going to be corrupt. To be fair, I didn’t care about Whitewater, Vince Foster, and blowjobs in the desk kneehole either. I did care about “smoked but didn’t inhale” though. It showed he had no ability to stand up like Newt and say *smoked? I was a grad student in 1968. Who wasn’t smoking?* He didn’t even have the character of NEWT FWKNG GINGRICH!
    *cited from memory

  33. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @DK: OK Boomer. Whatevs.

  34. gVOR08 says:

    I see I have to revisit my old fallacy of imperfection theme. I too want a candidate who has the charisma of Bill Clinton, the intelligence of Barack Obama, the looks of middle aged Robert Redford, and the political skill to convince the MAGAs to agree with me on all issues. Until he shows up, I know one for sure reason for Ds’ problems.

    You can’t find more than a handful of Republicans, mostly now driven out, who could bring themselves to criticize an obvious sociopath like Trump, a drooling fool like Gym Jordan, or after around Jan 13 criticize an attack on the Capitol. But on our side, let a Portland City Council person say “defund”, or the President fail to turn down the inflation knob on the Resolute desk, or a potential candidate fail to prove to Devin Nunes’ satisfaction that she mishandled, as it turned out, precisely zero classified emails, and they’re the reason we lost. Could we see a little less fratricide and a little more party unity?

  35. Jen says:

    @DK: Yeah, that one about killed me.

    When considering Trump not only acted like he was the smartest, but also demanded public supplication on this, while simultaneously actually being one of the dumbest in the room, it’s hard to keep a straight face when reading complaints about Hillary Clinton. (Who actually probably IS the smartest person in the room.)

  36. Mimai says:

    Is this book (“The Bitter End”) the only place that Vavreck and Sides have published their results? I did a cursory search and couldn’t find the data or results elsewhere (e.g., peer-reviewed journal).

  37. Rick DeMent says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    How it works in Authoritarian regimes is you take someone you have a political beef with who currently has a 60% approval rating, get them in form of some kangaroo panel of trumped up charges, do it like 11 different times without even so much as in indictment, have them testify for 11 hours straight again no indictments. Rinse, repeated null until people are just sick of hearing their name. Bonus round, then when your guy get is and goes on a literal crime spree you look the other why and then if anyone tries to hole them accountable you scream witch hunt because that is what you did in the first place.

  38. James Joyner says:

    @Mimai: Sides is not only a tenured full professor but has an endowed chair; he really doesn’t need to publish journal articles anymore. The book is peer-reviewed, since it’s published by Princeton University Press. He and Vavreck do have an article out in APSR, the top journal in the field, but it’s on “The Effect of Television Advertising in United States Elections” and thus doesn’t have the data you want.

  39. Mimai says:

    Mine was a very straightforward question, driven by nothing other than moderate curiosity — see, I am not so curious as to wade through a book, but I am curious enough to read an article etc. Open source data would raise my curiosity further.

    The straightforward answer to such a straightforward question appears to be “no, not that I am aware of.”

    Instead, you felt the need (heh) to credential drop on his behalf. Hmmm…

    Sides looks to be very accomplished. Good on him. I have to admit that I chuckled at your point about his “need” wrt journal articles. Same could be said for podcast interviews. But I’m not a big fan of “need” framings (hey Kurtz).

  40. James Joyner says:

    @Mimai: Nah, just explaining why he skipped right to a university press book rather than going through the intermediary step of publishing pieces in journals, as is customary for more junior scholars. Plus, this is the second such book he’s been part of; he and some of his collaborators on this one did the same for 2016.