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Election Day 2018

Election Day 2018November 6th, 2018
10 months to go.

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Political Polarization Hits New Heights

In recent weeks, Americans have witnessed President Trump and Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) continue to escalate their public battle over treatment of Gold Star widow Myesia Johnson. Others, including White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and the widow of slain Army Sgt. La David Johnson have been forced to take sides about whether a president or a member of Congress is telling the truth about a condolence call, or which person is more out-of-bounds.

Although there is much that is unprecedented about this situation, like a president criticizing his predecessors for calling fewer Gold Star families than him, the most overlooked aspect of this situation is more troubling for the future of American democracy. Lost in the endless hours of commentary about Trump and Wilson is the reality that hyper-partisanship has moved from the political to the very personal. This breeds little willingness on the part of politicians and citizens to talk with one another to resolve real or perceived differences.

In the most recent Meredith College Poll, respondents were asked whether political polarization was worse today than six months ago. Almost 70 percent of North Carolinians felt that the country was more divided than it was just after President Trump was inaugurated, with over 80 percent of Democrats and minority groups feeling this way and almost 60 percent of Republicans concurring.

Several reasons were given about why political polarization has increased. A large majority of Democrats – over 80 percent – identified Donald Trump as the cause of increased polarization, while Republicans were more likely to identify the media as the major culprit. Independent voters were equally split between Donald Trump and the media as major sources of polarization.

While the perceptions of increased political polarization and the differences of opinion about the major causes of this extremism are not surprising, we also asked our respondents to evaluate the effects of this increased partisanship on their lives and relationships. Only about 20 percent of respondents indicated that talking to someone with different opinions of Donald Trump was “interesting and informative,” while just over 40 percent found such conversations stressful and frustrating. Moreover, roughly one-third of North Carolinians stated that they refused to talk to people with different beliefs about Donald Trump than their own.

Within the sample, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to find conversations about politics with people of different attitudes about Trump as interesting and informative, but even then, more than 70 percent of this group found political conversations as negative or they avoided them altogether.

In previous Meredith Polls related to partisanship, we found that the language people use to refer to those different than themselves was extremely negative. Republicans were more likely to refer to Democrats as “un-American” and “ignorant,” while the most often used phrases by Democrats to describe Republicans were “stupid” and “evil.”

Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill and President Ronald Reagan were ideological opposites in the 1980s. O’Neill was often angered by Reagan’s speeches and statements on issues such as taxes or Social Security reform. Many stories have been popularized in recent years about O’Neill going to the White House after being angered by Reagan and sitting down over a drink and talking about their respective difficulties, as opposed to reflexively going to the media to attack the other leader’s motives.

Democracy works better when our leaders behave more like O’Neill and Reagan rather than Wilson and Trump. More conversation without the intermediaries of Twitter and journalists would be a good example for citizens whose polarized attitudes are beginning to reflect those of its leaders.


Trump and the failure of the bully pulpit

The Republican promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) continues to be a problem, despite its members controlling the executive and legislative branches. After having many motions go down to defeat including the “skinny repeal,” Republicans face an uncertain future on health care.  Recent polls show that the ACA is the most popular it has been and various versions of House and Senate replacement bills languish with less than one-quarter of Americans approving any version of a replacement.

Although health care reform is difficult because of intra-party differences among Republicans, President Trump’s unwillingness or inability to perform one of the most basic tasks of presidential leadership—using the bully pulpit—makes Republican legislative victories in the future unlikely.

Just over six months into his presidency, Donald Trump has shown little inclination to use traditional methods of presidential persuasion to sell his policy ideas, instead relying on Twitter threats and small group meetings with legislators to push for policies like the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA). In comparison, President Barack Obama gave a televised speech to a joint session of Congress on September 9, 2009, along with many other speeches and national interviews before the ACA passed in 2010.

From Barack Obama’s speeches on health care reform or human rights and even as far back as Theodore Roosevelt’s speeches on behalf of the Panama Canal, the policy speech and full-blown communication campaign have been critical for major policy initiatives to be successful.

Called the “rise of the rhetorical presidency” by political scientists such as Jeffrey Tullis, this type of presidential persuasion aims to shape public opinion rather than convince legislators directly.  The messages themselves changed from ones based on formal logic and argumentation to more of a narrative structured message filled with emotional appeals.

Historically, there have been many examples of successful policy campaigns by modern presidents. Ronald Reagan was masterful at employing the rhetorical tools of the modern presidency by weaving stories rich in American mythology with reasons often lacking rational proof. His Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars, speech was typical of this approach as he wrapped the story of America’s fundamental goodness with claims about military hardware systems that were unproven. President George W. Bush campaigned to use military intervention in Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein using a similar narrative logic meant to move public opinion, even if the opinion of many military and foreign policy experts did not support Bush’s position.

Likewise, Barack Obama’s campaign for the Affordable Care Act was a full blown public campaign of speeches and media appearances in which the messages about health care reform were framed as part of a longstanding attempt by presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to the present to make health care accessible and affordable to all Americans. He argued that the plan would protect the free market for health insurance and bring down the costs of care, promises that later proved problematic.

Policy speeches and public campaigns are no guarantee of success. Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations campaign in 1919 was a dismal failure. After a grueling year of speeches and appearances across the nation by Wilson, the Senate failed to ratify the treaty authorizing U.S. participation in the League. Likewise, Bill Clinton’s campaign for health care reform in 1993 failed, not because of a lack of effort on Clinton’s part, but in part because his administration’s rhetoric about the need for and promise of health care reform was met by a more powerful narrative in the “Harry and Louise” ads produced by the health care industry.

Instead of making a major nationally televised policy speech advocating a clear health care reform bill or traveling the country sharing stories of how a new law will change lives, Trump prefers exhortation. He promises great health care for everyone and criticizes the ACA for being a disaster. This is not persuasion that will help Republicans get health care reform across the finish line.

Presidential persuasion, as demonstrated by many of his predecessors, still matters, but as President Trump has illustrated with many other White House traditions, the policy speech may be a thing of the past.

Who will lead the Senate health care debate?

Senate Republicans voted by the narrowest of margins – 51-50 – to begin debate to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Several days ago even this procedural victory appeared unlikely.

McConnell scheduled today’s vote even though several polls show the bill’s low public approval. With the help of President Donald Trump, McConnell pressured just enough senators to vote in favor of the motion – including Dean Heller and Rand Paul – who previously said they had concerns with Republican reform ideas.

Although McConnell and Trump successfully used their positions to pressure critics such as Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, one of the most vocal critics of the process used in the Senate, it is unlikely the tactics used to squeeze 50 Republican senators to vote to allow debate will translate into a Republican bill that repeals and replaces Obamacare.

The likely leaders in the next phase of the Republican attempts to reform health care will come from different parts of the caucus. Their arguments in the upcoming debates will be forceful and not amenable to the pressures of McConnell or Trump.

Susan Collins of Maine, one of two Republicans who voted against the motion to debate, leads the group of moderate Republicans and has been clearest about the need for starting over on reform.

McCain made an emotional return to the Senate floor to cast his vote to proceed with debate, even while criticizing the Republicans’ bill and the process used by McConnell. McCain represents the mainstream Republicans who want to follow a more traditional legislative process.

McCain: “We’re getting nothing done.”

Rand Paul of Kentucky, speaking for the libertarian wing, argues that nothing short of a complete repeal of the ACA with no reform that offers government subsidies is the best solution.

The Republican caucus remains divided about the way forward on health care reform. However, with a weakened majority leader and an unpopular president, it will be interesting to see who emerges as a leader in the next few weeks.

One party is ‘racist,’ the other ‘losers’? Ut-oh

After Gov. Roy Cooper’s State of the State address last month, N.C. Senate Leader Phil Berger delivered a hard-edged response in which he said: “the institutions of the Left – the press, the Democratic Party, and liberal special interests – have ginned up great controversy and false outrage. They organize vulgar rallies and protests. They disrupt public meetings. They attempt to sabotage our state’s economy and put regular North Carolinians out of business. They call Republicans ignorant, dishonest, immoral, racist, bigoted, anti-women, anti-voter, anti-education – even treasonous.”

A senator since 2000, Berger has held leadership positions since 2004 and has a reputation for civility. The tone and content of his response to Cooper’s speech was thus out-of-character, but perhaps understandable given the pressures Berger is under with a Democratic governor and constant attacks from in and out of the state over HB2 and other controversial laws.

That a large majority of North Carolinians think that the nation and state are highly polarized is not surprising, given the 2016 election and its aftermath. However, when we asked open-ended questions about what people thought about conservatives, liberals, Democrats, and Republicans, the intensity of citizens’ perceptions of those different from them was surprising and concerning.

The most often-used word that Democrats used to describe conservatives and Republicans was “racist,” with terms like “evil,” “stupid,” and “uncaring” all being used by a significant number of registered Democrats. Likewise, registered Republicans most frequently used descriptions of liberals and Democrats as “dishonest,” “whiny,” “losers,” and “evil.” Unaffiliated voters had equal disdain for conservatives, liberals, Democrats, and Republicans, with “liars” being most commonly used, followed by “hypocrites,” “weak,” and “out of touch.”

In addition to the language used, 93 percent of Democrats think the GOP is more extreme and 94 percent of Republicans believe Democrats are more extreme.

These results don’t bode well for those who hope that hyper-partisanship subsides and that political discourse becomes more civil. Instead, these results point to some long-term implications:

1. Elected leaders will continue to stake out extreme policy positions and view compromise as politically untenable, especially on hot button issues.

2. Political parties will continue to lose influence over increasingly larger segments of the population, as people decide that neither party represents them. Because party identification is a large part of voting, this may mean that turnout will drop precipitously.

3. Citizens will continue to see protests and legal actions as their main ways of affecting the outcomes of policies they disagree with.

There are many causes of the hyper-partisanship affecting North Carolina and the United States, but few easy solutions. However, civil discussion and compromise are essential to a functioning democracy, so we must continue to try.

After HB2 repeal, there are no winners, only losers

For just over a year, North Carolina roiled in the controversies surrounding House Bill 2 and, after several failed attempts, the governor signed legislation that repealed elements of the original law. Although organizations like the Atlantic Coast Conference have said that the state is now eligible to host athletic championships, HB2 will have lasting effects on the state and its politics.

2016, 2017, and Beyond

One year ago, I sat down to make my predictions for 2016. Although many of my predictions turned out to be correct, my election predictions for president and North Carolina governor were wrong. I underestimated the impact of voter anger–from rural voters who were angry at Washington and voted for Trump to NC voters who disliked Pat McCrory and voted for Roy Cooper in a good Republican year.

Now it is time to look forward. The next year promises to be a turbulent as the year we are ending. In North Carolina, we will have a Democratic governor and Republican-controlled General Assembly that is already at war over issues like HB2 and about distribution of power between the two branches. At the federal level, we will have the most unpredictable president since Andrew Jackson, who is threatening to completely blow up many domestic and foreign policies that have been a part of the American political fabric for decades.

Let’s start with some predictions for North Carolina:

  1. House Bill 2, or the infamous bathroom bill, that had defined North Carolina nationally and internationally for almost nine months, will not be repealed by legislative action, but will be struck down as unconstitutional by the federal district court.
  2. In other legal actions, the North Carolina Supreme Court will rule that the bill removing the governor’s ability to appoint members of the State Board of Education is unconstitutional, extending the string of rulings overturning the actions of the Republican-led General Assembly. Also, Republicans will redraw legislative maps in North Carolina for 2017 special elections and these will be ruled unconstitutional. The court will ultimately redraw the legislative districts.
  3. Despite the problems with gerrymandered maps, a bill to make redistricting done by a non-partisan (or at least bi-partisan) panel of judges will once again die in committee.
  4. Legislative elections will be held in 2017 and Democrats will pick up enough seats in both chambers so that Republicans no longer have a super majority in the General Assembly.
  5. A new voter bill will pass the North Carolina General Assembly. This bill will eliminate same day registration at early voting sites and contain a new provision that people show a photo id in order to vote. The bill will be vetoed by Governor Cooper, but the override will narrowly fail in the NC House, as some Republicans vote with Democrats to uphold the veto.
  6. Governor Cooper will seek Medicaid expansion under provisions of the Affordable Care Act, while Republicans in Washington are dismantling most of the 2010 law. Republicans in the General Assembly will attempt to pass legislation limiting Cooper’s ability to seek Medicaid expansion. This law will end up in federal court.

Predicting what will happen in North Carolina is relatively easy, compared to predicting what will happen when the Trump administration takes over on January 20. Nevertheless, here is what I see happening:

  1. The Trump administration has a rocky start as three of his cabinet nominees–Sessions (AG), Tillerson (State), and Pulzer (Labor) face difficult committee hearings in the Senate. At least two of these are not confirmed.
  2. Senator Chuck Schumer proves to be even more of an obstructionist to Donald Trump as Mitch McConnell was to Barack Obama. Not only does he lead the attempts to block some of Trump’s cabinet nominees, but he proves effective in fighting the Republican’s attempt to overturn Obamacare and overhauls of Medicare and Medicaid.
  3. The first major foreign policy challenge that President Trump faces is with North Korea, after intelligence reveals that it’s nuclear program is more advanced than previously thought and that China is not exercising any control over North Korea’s dictator. Despite Trump’s campaign boasts, his reaction to North Korean aggression is just as measured as that of his predecessor.
  4. President Trump does not attempt to build a wall across the southern boundary of the United States, but instead seeks a modest increase in the budget to extend what President Obama started–more border agents and increased use of technology along the border.
  5. The House Oversight Committee begins an investigation of Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest in May as even conservative talk radio hosts, like Rush Limbaugh, start raising questions about the obvious conflicts.
  6. Donald Trump nominates Justice William Pryor of the 11th District Court of Appeals for the vacancy on the US Supreme Court. He passes easily and is seated as the Court’s ninth justice.

Politics in 2017 promises to be just as messy and partisan as it was in 2016, just without a presidential campaign to raise the volume. I will make one more prediction for the years–that at least four prominent names will emerge as major party candidates for president in 2020, including at least two prominent Republicans who will be disillusioned by the first few months of the Trump presidency. One of those names will be Paul Ryan.

Debates are game-changers . . .well, no

With the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump just hours away, the media hype about this campaign event is in full-swing. Pundits are promoting the debate as a “make-or-break” performance for both candidates. Cable news networks have spent the better part of the weekend leading up to the debate discussing the strategies that each candidate will use and today will feature CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC over-analyzing everything from moderator Lester Holt’s political affiliation to what the candidates will wear.

Despite the hype, the reality is that presidential debates rarely change the dynamics of the campaign that are already established this late in the election season. Political science research demonstrates that even the most memorable moments over the last five decades have really produced no game-changers, despite claims to the contrary.

Political scientists Robert Erickson and Christopher Wlezien performed regression analysis on the pre and post-debate polling results from 1960-2008 and found little difference in the support for each candidate after the debates, even though many believe that major changes occurred.


For example, in 1992, President George H. W. Bush was criticized for looking a his watch in the three-way debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot with pundits claiming that he was disinterested. The data show, however, that his action had no difference.

The one debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976 appears to be the outlier. There we signficant differences in the polling results after the debate in which Gerald Ford infamously commented that Eastern Europe was free from Soviet domination. However, contrary to public memory, the direction of public opinion was toward Gerald Ford, not away from him. He began the campaign against Jimmy Carter almost 30 percentage points behind, primarily because of his pardon of Richard Nixon in 1975. By Election Day, even after the Eastern Europe gaffe, Ford closed Carter’s lead and lost the election by two percentage point–hardly a game changer that hurt him.

If history is a lesson, then tonight’s debate will not change the overall dynamics of the race between Clinton and Trump. Polls show that the race is close, but that Clinton has a narrow lead in national surveys. Unless something really extraordinary happens–well beyond what we have seen in previous presidential debates–even a gaffe of Trumpian proportions may affect this race very little.