Explaining why suburban voters are seeing fewer contested local gov’t races

Compared to previous years, suburban voters going to the polls together will have fewer choices:

Barely 30 percent of the hundreds of races being decided Tuesday are contested, according to a Daily Herald analysis. That’s down from about 45 percent of races that were contested in local elections eight years ago…

Experts believe there are many reasons fewer people are running for local offices, from the cost of campaigns to the incivility of social media. The effect is voters more frequently must settle for someone who is merely willing to serve rather than choosing the best candidates from among a field of contenders…

The exodus from local candidacy in part is a result of growing personal and professional demands for many people, making time to attend board meetings scarce, experts said.

The downside of public service also dissuades some potential candidates, they added.

Given all that we have heard in recent years about dissatisfaction among the electorate, it is interesting that this doesn’t appear to translate into wanting to get into politics to change things. Shouldn’t the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter or Trump supports have flooded local elections with an interest in changing government and society?

When you talk to local officials, they often tell of getting into politics to address practical local issues – these are not often ideologues with grand ambitions. (Thus, it is unusual when a local politician gets involved with national politics such as the recent story in the New York Times of the Bolingbrook mayor and Donald Trump.) Is it simply easier to be angry with government and the disavow any need to participate? (And don’t forget that voting in local elections is often quite low.)

“Nothing that is off-limits to political data mining”

Your consumer data is of value to political campaigns and parties eager to reach individual voters:

But as presidential campaigns push into a new frontier of voter targeting, scouring social media accounts, online browsing habits and retail purchasing records of millions of Americans, they have brought a privacy imposition unprecedented in politics. By some estimates, political candidates are collecting more personal information on Americans than even the most aggressive retailers. Questions are emerging about how much risk the new order of digital campaigning is creating for unwitting voters as the vast troves of data accumulated by political operations becomes increasingly attractive to hackers…

“There is a tremendous amount of data out there and the question is what types of controls are in place and how secure is it,” said Craig Spiezle, executive director of the nonprofit Online Trust Alliance. The group’s recent audit of campaign websites for privacy, security and consumer protection gave three-quarters of the candidates failing grades…One firm, Aristotle, boasts how it helped a senior senator win reelection in 2014 using “over 500 demographic and consumer points, which created a unique voter profile of each constituent.” Company officials declined an interview request.

When investigators in Congress and the FTC looked into the universe of what data brokers make available to their clients – be they political, corporate or nonprofit – some of the findings were unsettling. One company was selling lists of rape victims; another was offering up the home addresses of police officers.

I think several things are relevant to note. First, it sounds like the majority of this data is not collected by political actors but rather is aggregated by them to help predict voter behavior. In other words, this data collection is happening whether political actors use the information or not. This is a bigger issue than just politics. Second, should American residents be more concerned that this information is available in the political realm or is available to corporations? The story suggests political campaigns aren’t well prepared to protect all this data but how do corporations stack up? Again, this is a larger issue of who is gathering all of this data to start, from where, and how is it being protected.

Another area worth thinking more about is how effective all this data actually is in elections. This story doesn’t say and numerous other stories on this subject I’ve read tend not to say: just how big are the differences in voting behavior among these microgroups or people identified by particular consumer behaviors? Is this the only way to win campaigns today (see media reports on political campaigns successfully using this data here and here)? Is this knowledge worth 1% in the final outcome, 5%, 10%? Perhaps this is hard to get at because this is a relatively new phenomena and because data companies as well as campaigns want to guard their proprietary methods. Yet, it is hard to know how big of a deal this is to either consumers or political actors. Is this data mining manipulating elections?

Nate Silver: “The World May Have A Polling Problem”

In looking at the disparities between polls and recent election results in the United States and UK, Nate Silver suggests the polling industry may be in some trouble:

Consider what are probably the four highest-profile elections of the past year, at least from the standpoint of the U.S. and U.K. media:

  • The final polls showed a close result in the Scottish independence referendum, with the “no” side projected to win by just 2 to 3 percentage points. In fact, “no” won by almost 11 percentage points.
  • Although polls correctly implied that Republicans were favored to win the Senate in the 2014 U.S. midterms, they nevertheless significantly underestimated the GOP’s performance. Republicans’ margins over Democrats were about 4 points better than the polls in the average Senate race.
  • Pre-election polls badly underestimated Likud’s performance in the Israeli legislative elections earlier this year, projecting the party to about 22 seats in the Knesset when it in fact won 30. (Exit polls on election night weren’t very good either.)

At least the polls got the 2012 U.S. presidential election right? Well, sort of. They correctly predicted President Obama to be re-elected. But Obama beat the final polling averages by about 3 points nationwide. Had the error run in the other direction, Mitt Romney would have won the popular vote and perhaps the Electoral College.

Perhaps it’s just been a run of bad luck. But there are lots of reasons to worry about the state of the polling industry. Voters are becoming harder to contact, especially on landline telephones. Online polls have become commonplace, but some eschew probability sampling, historically the bedrock of polling methodology. And in the U.S., some pollsters have been caught withholding results when they differ from other surveys, “herding” toward a false consensus about a race instead of behaving independently. There may be more difficult times ahead for the polling industry.

It sounds like there are multiple areas for improvement:

1. Methodology. How can polls reach the average citizen two decades into the 21st century? How can they collect representative samples?

2. Behavior across the pollsters, the media, and political operatives. How are these polls reported? Is the media more interested in political horse races than accurate poll results? Who can be viewed as an objective polling organization? Who can be viewed as an objective source for reporting and interpreting polling figures?

3. A decision for academics as well as pollsters: how accurate should polls be (what are the upper bounds for margins of error)? Should there be penalties for work that doesn’t accurately reflect public opinion?

Growing Latino populations in American cities

Latinos constitute a growing share of American urban populations, raising implications for future political races:

While many cities are experiencing an influx of young whites, those gains are more than offset by the continuing exodus of working- and middle-class whites. The result is a net decline nationwide of the white share of city populations.

Hispanic ascendance is apparent in both cities and suburbs, increasing the likelihood of the election of Latinos to local, state and federal office.

Over time, blacks stand to lose leverage. Cities have been a crucial base of power for African-American politicians. Insofar as the black population becomes diffuse, black leaders will have to grapple with a decline in black-majority districts, especially city council districts, in cities with declining black populations…

Frey pointed toward the rapidly increasing strength of the Latino vote in the 100 largest metropolitan areas. Between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of city dwellers in such areas who are Hispanic grew to 26 percent from 17 percent; and the share of suburban residents who are Hispanic rose to 17 percent from 8 percent.

Some striking demographic changes that have potential consequences in areas like politics. The changes are numerous: an influx of younger, educated whites into city centers even as whites leave other areas of cities; an increase in the suburbanization of blacks; and growing Latino populations in both cities and suburbs. These changes may not quickly become apparent in the political landscape but should at least draw the attention of political operators. For example, is incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel really in danger in the run-off election? Given the demographic changes in large cities like Chicago, perhaps.

Cantor’s victorious opponent, an economics professor, to face off against Democrat sociologist professor

The academic disciplines of sociology and economics don’t always get along so it will be interesting to watch an economics and sociology professor square off in Virginia’s 7th district:

In sociology, education is often championed as the best path to a vibrant society—an idea Trammell clearly subscribes to. He is running on a platform of college access, student-loan forgiveness, and special-education reform. In 2012, Trammell published a book, The Richmond Slave Trade: The Economic Backbone of the Old Dominion. (More recently, he has planned to write a vampire novel.) Trammell’s ancestor, Thomas Trammell, was an indentured servant when he arrived in Fairfax in 1671.

Brat joined the faculty at Randolph-Macon in 1996 after receiving his Ph.D. in economics at American University. Since then, he’s taught classes on micro- and macroeconomics, public finance, and business ethics. And he coauthored a paper titled, “An Analysis of the Moral Foundations in Ayn Rand”. Back in January, Brat told the National Review that while he doesn’t consider himself a Randian, “he has been influenced by Atlas Shrugged and appreciates Rand’s case for human freedom and free markets.”…

The idea of a Republican economics professor facing off against a Democratic sociology professor presents a near-perfect microcosm of American political thought. What matters most in governance—the good of the market or the good of society? Should government serve to keep the free market as uninhibited as possible, or to impose checks on the market to protect citizens? Is education or entrepreneurship a more important path to individual and collective success? These are questions ripe for a Poli-Sci 101 discussion.

Perhaps a bit overstated (the next, and last, paragraph of the story goes on to tell who has the highest score at RateMyProfessor.com) but it sounds like the two have different perspectives on the world.  Given their disciplines, it could be easy to caricature the two sides without seeing what exactly the points of agreement and disagreement are between the two candidates. Is it easy to argue its education versus free markets or would voters generally support both? It is not immediately clear how much voters care much about this academic food fight –  both candidates are PhDs after all.

If you are curious, here are the demographics of Virginia’s 7th House District which skews Republican and more white, educated, and wealthy than American averages.

According to the United States Census Bureau’s 2010 data for the 111th Congress, the total population of the district is 757,917. Median age for the district is 39.2 years. 74.3% of the district is White, 17.1% Black, 3.9% Asian, 0.3% Native American or Alaskan, and 2.1% some other race with 4.9% Hispanic or Latino. Owner-occupied housing is 72.0% and renter-occupied housing is 28.0%. The median value of single-family owner-occupied homes is $188,400. 88.1% of the district population has at least a high school diploma, 36.7% at least a bachelor’s degree or higher. 9.9% of the district are civilian veterans. 12.7% are foreign born and 20.1% speak a language other than English at home. 9.9% are of disability status. 68.2% of the district is in the labor force, which consists of those 16 years and older. Mean travel time to work is 26.2 minutes. Median household income is $64,751. Per capita income is $33,628. 5.3% of the population account for families living below the poverty level, and 7.6% of individuals live below the poverty level.

So perhaps the sociologist, compared to an economist, starts at a disadvantage.

When Chicago suburbs disqualify candidates running for public office

Local government and control is a cherished part of suburban life. But, the Chicago Tribune highlights today on its front page how often Chicago suburban governments disqualify candidates running for local office:

For its investigation, the Tribune focused on races that critics say are the most troubling: suburban candidates running for city and village offices. Reporters canvassed every suburb in the Chicago region, reviewed scores of objections filed against candidates and interviewed dozens of those involved in the system. The newspaper found:

Widespread abuse. At least 200 candidates faced objections this year, with only a small fraction alleging serious matters, such as criminal histories, residency issues or outright fraud. Ultimately panels kicked 76 candidates off the ballot across three dozen suburbs.

Rampant bias. Of those knocked off, most fell at the hands of panels stacked with members who had a political stake in their own decisions. Conflicts also went beyond simple politics: Even relatives ruled on their own family members’ cases.

Wild inconsistencies. The rules are not evenly applied, with similar infractions leading some panels to remove candidates, but not other panels.

Costly tabs. The challenges cost taxpayers in some towns tens of thousands of dollars each election cycle, many times in suburbs that can least afford it…

The Tribune studied local election systems in the suburbs of the nation’s other largest metro areas: New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Philadelphia. None has Illinois’ combination of difficulty getting on the suburban ballot and ease in getting kicked off.

Local government is often thought to be more non-partisan than elections at higher levels of government. But non-partisanship does not necessarily mean that officeholders aren’t still looking to stay in office and will do what they can to keep challengers out. Local races can be particularly nasty even as very few people vote. I suspect most suburbanites would not like what the Tribune found but ironically probably wouldn’t be too motivated to vote on the issue, pressure politicians about their concerns, or run for office themselves to change the situation.

Underlying all of this in the suburbs is that suburban culture promotes letting people do their own thing and trying to avoid public friction. A great source on this is the book The Moral Order of a Suburb by M. P. Baumgartner. Here is how the Amazon book description puts it:

Drawing on research, observation, and hundreds of in-depth interviews conducted during a twelve-month study of an affluent New York City suburb, M.P. Baumgartner reveals that the apparent serenity of the suburb is caused by the avoidance of open conflict. She contends that although nonviolence, nonconfrontation, and tolerance produce a superficial social harmony, these behaviors arise from disintegrative tendencies in modern culture–transience, fragmentation, weak family and communal ties, isolation, and indifference–conditions customarily viewed as sources of disorder, antagonism, and violence. A kind of moral minimalism pervades the suburbs, a disorganized social order that, with the suburbs’ rapid growth in America, promises to be the moral order of the future.

This is a paradox of the suburbs: we tend to think of transience and fragmentation leading to social disorder but Baumgartner argues this is what actually brings suburbanites together.