By David Rogers. December 12, 2018. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Last month’s mid-term elections gained renewed interest this week with the revelation of alleged election fraud in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, with the vice chairman of the Bladen County Board of Elections even resigning. The November elections have been described as a referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency, and significant from the standpoint of who controls the two houses of the U.S. Congress, all the way down to local elections.
Blowing Rock News sat down recently with Dr. Will Hicks, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in Appalachian State University’s Government and Justice Studies Department in a wide-ranging conversation about U.S. politics and elections on state, national and local levels. Our topics ranged from Donald Trump and party-line voting to gerrymandering and today’s levels of representation, among several others of timely interest.
Blowing Rock News (BRN): What got you interested in political science?
Will Hicks (WH): That is a very good question. As an 18-year old young man, I got to vote in my very first election, which was the 2000 presidential election. It was Bush v. Gore.
BRN: You are already making me feel old I think my first vote in a Presidential election was Richard Nixon vs. George McGovern in 1972!
WH: (Laughing) Well, that is the thing. I mention it today and my students act as if an election in 2000 is ancient history!
So I was a senior in high school and voted in that election. I actually declared my major as political science early, before going to college.
I like talking about politics. I like reading about politics. I like studying politics
And then my very first year in college was 9/11. It is a mistake to say that 9/11 was what made me want to be a political scientist because I had already declared my major, but one thing that is absolutely certain is my entire family is deeply political. The things we talked about at the dinner table growing up were politics, religion, and money – all the things you aren’t supposed to talk about.
Because of that, I was always interested in politics. Then the experience of getting to vote in a presidential election… well, it was such a controversial election with such close margins, the odd third-party candidate in Ralph Nader…It was all very interesting for me. There was just something about that time that helped propel me as a political scientist.
Early on, going into my bachelor’s degree, then my master’s and Ph.D., I started out favoring topics revolved around comparative politics and international relations, I guess because there was a certain amount of heft given to them in the press. The Bush wars meant that people were talking about international relations a lot.
But I had a couple of faculty members at the time who encouraged me to study stuff that I was interested in. The more I thought about it, I realized that I was interested in Congressional politics, state and local politics. I wanted to be an international relations student, but I kept picking classes on Congress. I finally let go of that international relations and comparative politics side to me, and just focused on what I really liked, which was American politics.
I like talking about politics. I like reading about politics. I like studying politics.
BRN: Well, in today’s world I guess you would say politics is fertile ground for talking, reading and studying it.
WH: Yes, that’s right! It is a very busy world with lots of news and lots of interesting stories.
Is this a Trump effect? Or is there something bigger at play?
BRN: How has the Trump phenomenon changed the political landscape in America?
WH: It’s fascinating. I hate to speak too early. Political scientists are wary of writing or saying things that we are not certain of, but there are a couple of things that we think are happening
One, 2016 was one of the first elections – and THE first since the 1950s – where we saw a majority of Americans with bachelor’s degrees vote for the Democratic candidate. Prior to that, people with bachelor’s degrees typically had higher incomes and were more likely to vote for a Republican candidate, especially from the 1960s onward.
So one of the things that I think Trump has done…He has made educated persons in the United States a little bit more skeptical and possibly shifting some of the partisan stripes among individuals.
BRN: Shifting away from….
WH: Away from the Republican Party. So the big question is…when Trump is gone, do the bachelor’s degrees come back to the Republican Party, or do they stay with the Democratic Party? Is the current migration away from the Republican Party by bachelor’s degrees a realignment, or is this just a temporary movement? In other words, is this a Trump effect, or is there something bigger at play?
We do have evidence that people with bachelor’s degrees have become more “progressive” in the past 20 years. This (2016) is the first election that we saw a majority of bachelor’s degrees supporting Democratic candidates, especially Hillary Clinton.
BRN: It sounds like you are suggesting that the Trump side is setting back the intellectual…
WH: Much of the rhetoric in the Trump White House — but this started before him — and some of the rhetoric that has come out of the Republican Party is anti-intellectual. That is pretty well documented.
There is this divisiveness when it comes to talking about intellectuals and academics. Republicans have taken on positions of being skeptical of academics, of intellectual ideas, of science and how we use science. That messaging has started to shape how educated persons view the Republican Party.
Republicans are the party of skepticism now.
BRN: To dovetail with what you are suggesting is true is that most of the rhetoric around climate change or anti-climate change is coming from the Republican Party.
WH: That’s exactly right. Republicans are the party of skepticism now, i.e. “We don’t believe, necessarily…” “We ask questions about what the science tells us.” “Or we try to raise doubt.”
But when you do that, you raise doubt about a topic that has a high level of scientific consensus. And you are doing that in a way that questions intellectual practices, scientific method, and scientific conclusions. So the rhetoric in doing that, in questioning the science, ends up questioning intellectuals. It questions intellectual approaches. It questions intellectual ideas, intellectual debates, and intellectual arguments.
BRN: Of course, some would say that the act of questioning, of being skeptical, of challenging those ideas is a process of intellectualism itself.
WH: That’s true – and that is the irony in it, right? There should be a position for people to question the findings.
The problem when it comes to climate change is that people are not questioning the methods or how much uncertainty we have. They are denying the findings of what 99% of various studies are showing. So it has gone past the healthy level of skepticism for scientific growth into a place where we see stagnation.
.I think it is more likely that Trump is a symptom, not a cause. He is more of a symptom of this crystallization of anti-intellectualism in the Republican Party and how that might be reshaping voters.
Voters with bachelor’s degrees now are conflicted. They typically earn more. Higher income earners like the Republican Party because they favor lower levels of taxation. On the other hand, they are more likely to be better educated, which means they have strong or positive outlooks toward intellectual ideas, science, and that sort of stuff.
Almost 100% of the stuff he tweets motivates Democrats against him.
This conflict is continuing to brew. Maybe it is being reshaped under the Trump presidency.
A new aspect of Trump is that some political scientists are calling him the first social media president. To be fair, Twitter came into existence before Barack Obama. Facebook started during the Bush years.
Obama used Twitter, but he didn’t use it the same way Donald Trump does. Trump is communicating with voters in a highly unprecedented way. That is new, but he is also doing it in a hyper-partisan way. He is saying things that are VERY partisan.
BRN: Well, you could almost say that Trump represents a third partisan viewpoint because he is not always representative of the Republican Party. He’s never representative of the Democrats. He’s more representative of Trumpism.
WH: Yes! I would say that almost 100% of the tweets he sends motivate Democrats against him, but a good 25% of his tweets motivate Republicans against him. He is using social media in a way that is very unprecedented. In some ways, there are definitely non-partisan aspects to it. There are concerns that his tweets are polarizing. The way he uses it, his ability to speak directly to voters…he’s not using it in a way to unify people.
I am not saying that he should or shouldn’t be (using tweets to unify people), but when you look at his messaging, they are not necessarily cloaked in this unifying language. It’s not, “Let’s come together over this issue…”
BRN: It’s often more like, “She’s dumb and dangerous.”
WH: Yes. They are very partisan. They say, “Lock her up.” “Crooked Hillary” “Fake News”. There are attacks on the news. There are attacks on political opponents. There are attacks on people in his own White House.
It’s not just the social media aspect, but that he is using social media like regular Americans might use it. In some cases, average Americans say things that are polarizing and inappropriate, as well as divisive. So for Trump to use social media like those average Americans is also new.
Trump is using social media in a way that is attractive to baser instincts.
BRN: Obama used social media very effectively to win the election with his “Hope and Change” messaging. Many would argue that he is actually the first social media president.
WH: Right. So that is the debate. He was doing it in a different way (than Trump is using it today).
BRN: I guess most would say that Obama used it in a more constructive way. Would you suggest that Trump is using social media in a destructive, or unhealthy way?
WH: I’m not sure how comfortable I am in saying that yet, but I also don’t necessarily disagree with that assessment. I think I would say that Trump is using it in a way that is attractive to baser instincts that people have. And those instincts may be more problematic. Without question, he is a partisan President in the sense that he uses language that is very accusatory, one-sided, polarizing.
Like Obama, Trump might say that his use of social media is what got him elected, too. He got a segment of Republicans really excited and even aggressive about things. He might be activating Democrats against him, but he is activating Republicans against Democrats, too.
BRN: And probably appealing to what heretofore might have been a more apathetic segment of our population.
WH: That is absolutely right. Especially in the Obama years when you had slow but steady economic growth, no news was somewhat good news.
Despite being named “Barack Obama”, despite being black…he ends up having really strong public approval levels, even toward the end of his presidency. He got a large group of supporters who later voted for Donald Trump. So if you are a Republican strategist, you needed somebody who would wrestle that apathy from the Republican Party and excite them against something. So I think that is a little bit of what he (Trump) has done.
It is new and concerning in how polarizing it can be.
BRN: One of the things that concern me and I am going to call this “mobocracy” rather than “democracy” because people are getting political messages from very partisan sources. This began well before Donald Trump. We can go back to the mid-term elections of 2010 when, more locally, Cullie Tarleton was challenged by Jonathan Jordan for his North Carolina House seat. Cullie was the incumbent. Now Cullie is a friend of mine. I know the man and what kind of person he is. But I was getting in my P O Box every day all of this malicious, hateful accusations about Cullie Tarleton. I knew that none of it was true, but the problem is that most of Ma and Pa America don’t have an opportunity to sit down with Cullie and really understand him and sort out the facts from fiction…to sort out who he is and who he represents. I feel like we have evolved as a society into this mass communications era where social media and other types of very partisan messaging like direct mail can fuel the highly partisan, mobocracy environment.
WH: That is absolutely true. We are getting hit with messages that are polarizing, more partisan, and more disruptive faster than ever and the ability of organizations to do it has gotten more sophisticated and even fantastic than it has ever been.
BRN: And they are doing it prettier!
WH: Oh, are they doing it prettier. They are using better pictures and better graphics. A significant majority of the messaging is false. On the one hand it might make you feel better and on the other hand it will make you feel worse to know that what the research demonstrates is first, if you are a Democrat and you get one of those “hit” pieces about a Democratic candidate, it probably doesn’t change your vote about the Democratic candidate.
Right? So it doesn’t mean that all of a sudden you will vote for the Republican candidate. But what it does mean is that you are likely to figure out a way in your mind to write it off. You will say it is fake. Like Donald Trump, you will call it “fake news.”
Political scientists call it “motivated reasoning.” If you get a message that questions a candidate from the same party as yours as some other identity that you share with them, then you are likely to just disregard it.
On the other hand, it is something that the other party will just accept. If you receive a message that is favorable to your party like, “Democrats are evil”….You saw this in the 2016 election where there were these terrible conspiracies about Hillary Clinton. There was one where she was organizing a pedophile ring out of a pizza shop. It was total nonsense, but if you are a Republican and you are fed all of this bad information, you are not going to question it and you are even going to repeat it to others. There is no reason for you to question it. You just accept it.
The candidates have lost control.
Democrats obviously don’t buy it — at all. So the problem is that while Democrats don’t buy it as reality at all, Republicans don’t question it. They are more likely to think it is a reality. So we end up with two different worlds.
Democrats are not skeptical of messages that are pro-Democratic and Republicans are not skeptical of messages that are pro-Republican. This creates the right sort of context in which the messages we receive not just through the mail, but now through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. They can be even more effective in polarizing people. They make ordinary Republicans think Democrats are evil and make ordinary Democrats think Republicans are evil – when everybody is just people. We may not be any more evil than we used to be.
So that messaging can be really damaging.
You mention Jonathan Jordan. He was just defeated by Ray Russell. In this most recent election, you saw a lot of the same stuff, but we have different national conditions. The thing that is fascinating about it is that Jonathan Jordan and Ray Russell ended up with these campaigns where outside groups take over and campaign on their behalf.
What is fascinating about it is that 20-30 years ago candidates like Russell and Jordan used to have more say. They could say, “I want this message to be out there” or “I don’t want this message as part of my campaign.” Now, these outside groups just run the messages they want to. They get in touch with voters that they want to get in touch with.
WH: That’s right! And he would say the same thing now and so would Ray Russell. They have lost control. The modern era of campaigning …you are without control if you are in one of these marginal or competitive districts where one party or the other could win. What that means is that the national parties take over and the national interest groups take over. They funnel campaigns and ads.
There was an advertising campaign where they were labeling Ray Russell as “The Nutty Professor.” Well, almost every professor I know got a mailer saying he was the nutty professor. Clearly, that message was being sent by someone who didn’t know what App State is because that would be a really bad campaign tactic if your goal was to shape the attitude of professors. If you call one of them the nutty professor, you just made professors MORE likely to vote for Ray Russell. I don’t know what Jonathan Jordan’s attitude on that mailer was, but I doubt that he would have adopted that strategy, personally. He would know that would be a fool’s error.
So this is a really fascinating time in politics because these outside groups have become so powerful. An additional problem with that is when you look at our state legislature the lawmakers themselves are the people who want the positions…they really don’t have the time or ability to do anything about it anyway. If you are elected in the North Carolina state legislature, you are going to earn less than $20,000 per year. So you have to have another job, so you have to DO that other job and you have to have the kind of another job that will give you time to serve. I am really talking about a group of people who really don’t have that much time to investigate this stuff. So they are relying on these outside interest groups who dominate the scene. It is a fascinating time in politics because of that.
BRN: I know that one of your areas of specialty is gerrymandering.
BRN: How has that process evolved over the years? How is it different today than it used to be?
WH: It is a great question. They have map makers, both Democrats and Republicans. They have people who draw maps for them to pass like ordinary legislation…And they have gotten much better at it.
This has actually just changed a little bit because some states like Colorado have adopted commissions, but 37 U.S. states prior to 2018 drew the maps for their state house districts, for their state senate districts, and for Congressional districts.
One way is to WASTE the opposing party’s votes.
There is this new ad campaign that Arnold Schwarzenegger has adopted where he is rallying and railing against gerrymandering. His line is, “The way politics the works in the United States is instead of voters selecting state legislators, the state legislators select their voters.”
And of course, he says it with an Austrian accent!
What has happened now is that the tools used by people making the maps, the data that they have, have gotten so sophisticated. I do this and I have my students use the data: create gerrymandered maps that would be passable in the state legislature. And the students do this very easily. I can get two-thirds of my students to do it in an afternoon.
It is so much easier to draw maps. How do they do it?
One way that I like to think about gerrymandering… and like expert witnesses really grabbed onto this during recent litigation on the subject…is that what you really want to do if you are a gerrymanderer is that you want to WASTE the other party’s votes. There are two ways to do that.
One of them is what we call excessive votes. If you let your opponent win a district by, say, 51%-49%, they really didn’t waste any votes. But let’s say you could make them win that district by 99%.
Now they have wasted way more votes than they needed. We call those excessive votes beyond that 50+% that is needed to win.
So one thing you should do as a gerrymanderer is to exploit all opportunities to waste votes. Political scientists call this “packing.” You pack the opposing party into the smallest number of districts and make yourself more competitive in the largest number of districts.
The other strategy is cracking, but this is really another type of wasted vote. It is wasting votes by lost votes. If you lose an election with 49% of the vote, then now what you have done is wasted that 49%.
So you try to maximize your opponents’ excessive votes and you try to maximize your opponents’ lost votes. The latter are votes used in an election where the seat is eventually lost.
What a party wants in a successful gerrymander is to create as many successful districts where you win by a razor-thin margin. If you look at the 2018 election in North Carolina for the U.S. House of Representative seats, we have evidence that the Democrats systematically wasted a ton more votes. What does that mean? Well, Republicans were much more efficient. It is a really good example, in 2018, of districts that disadvantaged one party relative to another. Democrats were systematically disadvantaged.
Gerrymandering has gotten easier, and that makes it more attractive.
The data reveal, depending on how you measure it, that the Democrats wasted almost a million more votes than the Republicans. So that is pretty strong evidence of a gerrymander. Gerrymandering has gotten so much easier, so therefore we are seeing it much more extensively. Both parties do it. We have strong evidence of maps that disadvantage Republicans, too, in states like Maryland. Arizona, which uses a Commission, has a map that benefits Democrats at the expense of the Republicans. In Arizona, they have a constitutional amendment that maps encourage competition between the two parties. If your state has more Republicans than Democrats and you want it to be competitive, then you give Democrats a bigger advantage.
Gerrymandering has gotten easier, and that makes it more attractive.
BRN: A lot of people – and I am going to voice an opinion that I hear a lot – want to know why we can’t just arrive at a map and say, this is it, period. Stop the ability to gerrymander.
WH: I think the big problem we have in the United States…well, actually there are several problems with it.
One, and this is what a famous political scientist by the name of Robert Doll basically wrote in, Elements of the U.S. Constitution That are Undemocratic. The U.S. Constitution was completely silent about elections. It says that the U.S. House of Representatives will be selected every two years by voters, but the United States Senate was supposed to be UN-elected. Senators were to be selected by state governments. The U.S. President was UN-elected, selected by state governments. How elections were to be conducted was left entirely up to the states.
This created a vagueness, where state government decided over history the systems of election and voting that they wanted — including the systems of election administration that they thought were appropriate and useful.
This is where we saw a lot of problems. Where we saw disenfranchisement, where we saw racial issues at the ballot box, that wasn’t federal law. The 1965 Voting Rights Act was an attack on state election laws that were denying the rights of black people and other groups to vote. State governments are the ones who barred people from voting. They had maps that disadvantaged certain groups, including parties.
Part of the problem is that there are no federal guidelines on how states should conduct themselves on this issue. A second issue is that we use single-member districts with plurality rule. Not even the majority of democratic governments use such a system. These systems create an incentive to gerrymander.
Two extreme examples are Arizona and California.
Let’s say that you live in a state that has 60% Democrats and 40% Republicans. Then let’s say that you made every voting district a little microcosm of the state, with the same 60-40 split. In that case, the legislature would end up 100% Democratic because they are single-member districts. It might be a fair map where each district accurately represents the statewide demographic, but one party has absolutely no power. So single-member districts create this incentive to try and stack the deck.
A third problem is that we have not as a society decided what we want districts to represent. A good example where you can see this as problematic: most states are completely silent on it and federal laws on what districts should be are minimal. For the federal districts, we are supposed to update them every 10 years. They shouldn’t disadvantage racial or ethnic minorities. They have to be contiguous and they have to have somewhat equivalent populations. That is about it in terms of federal law.
BRN: My understanding is that population balance is crucial.
WH: Yes! That is the biggest one in federal districts. Then you come to the states and it is the state constitutions where you see some attempt to make a stand on what we want our districts to look like.
Two extreme examples are Arizona vs. California. Arizona has this constitutional requirement that if everything else is equal, they should select districts that maximize competition. They think we want competitive elections because they get people to vote. They inform us. Office holders care about re-election and are working hard to get voters to approve of them.
California, by contrast, has a constitutional amendment that they should maximize communities of interest. So it literally does the opposite of Arizona. It makes sure that elections are as uncompetitive as possible. It means that people who vote in similar districts should be similar in some way. So when they last decided on how to carve up the districts, they sent a commission around to decide what they should decide about these communities of interest.
There was a really strong argument that a horse community in Southern California should represent a district. That means it was just a group of horse owners. The assumption was that they would all vote the same way and that there would be no competition there. You might have competition in the primary election, but not in the general election.
I have always thought that is a fascinating idea.
These are very different ideas about what we want our (voting) districts to be. At some level, the solution to this problem requires that all of us – and by “all of us”, what do I mean? – the federal government, the U.S. Congress, American citizens, all at some level come to some agreement on what we think these districts should be and what we think fair is.
I think that is almost impossible if you have single-member districts. Ultimately, I guess what I am saying is that if we want to stop gerrymandering or stop groups or parties or interests from trying to pack maps that disadvantage their opponents, we’re going to create systems that don’t allow us to use maps at all. We need proportional representation.
BRN: OK, now that becomes an interesting segue into one of my other questions. I thought of this a few years ago and actually emailed a former poli sci professor of mine at Claremont McKenna College about this idea. He kind of pooh-poohed it, but what I see as one of the big problems in, for example, the U.S. Congress is the influence of special interest groups. If you look back at the history when the U.S. Constitution was put in place in the early 1780s and they began the whole Congressional representation aspect, every U.S. Congressman represented a relatively small number of people – something like 15,000 or 30,000 or 40,000 people or so. That made those representatives much more accessible to their constituents.
BRN: At some point earlier in the 20th century, we fixed the number of representatives at a certain level.
WH: 1911, I think, at 435.
BRN: But even back then, it was still a relatively small number of people represented by each Congressman.
WH: Yes, and now it is more like 800,000 people.
BRN: So one of the questions becomes, with today’s advances in technology – and this is the question I posed to Dr. Elliott and you couldn’t do it all on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. – why not increase the number of congressional districts? I don’t know the number…maybe it’s 6,000 districts to get back to a 40,000 to one ratio.
WH: I have always thought that is a fascinating idea. It is great that you bring it up because I always talk to my students about something similar. It is a fascinating question, and here is why.
There are really two reasons why. One is that when the Constitution was adopted..The Federal Papers were a big argument by James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton about why the new Constitution was going to work and solve all of these problems. Well, for those Federalists their big opponents were the anti-Federalists. There were a few big anti-Federalists. Two of them were Brutus and the Federal Farmer. They were actually “pen names”. But one of them made this big argument that eventually the big downfall of the new Constitution was essentially what you are pointing out now. That you are going to end up with a system that doesn’t have enough representatives per person and would need more.
So they actually had this (math) in the 1780s about how many people we should have? What does representing really look like? How can you well represent people? In short, they laid out this argument that we really need more representatives per person.
So your idea is actually something we have been talking about to a degree since the Founding Fathers. Somehow, though, we lost sight of this concept of representation along the way, but it is an important issue.
BRN: Technologically, today, we could do it.
WH: Yes, we could do it. Look at the size of the Communist Party in China. They have something like a million representatives and they are able to do it.
But the second reason is if you look at the state legislatures, it makes this kind of interesting. California has 38 million people. The Assembly, the lower chamber of the California legislature has 120 members. So 120 people represent 38 million.
BRN: Fast math in my head, that is a little more than 300,000 each.
WH (laughing): I’ll take your word for it!
Compare that to New Hampshire, which has a million or fewer people in that state. Their state legislature’s lower chamber has 424 representatives.
BRN: Ok, that is somewhere close to 2400 per representative.
WH (smiling): So their lower house has four times the number of representatives but one-thirty-eighth the population. Massachusetts has 380 members in their lower chamber. So among the states at least, we actually see going back to the country’s inception some mentalities, ethics, and cultures that privilege exactly what you are saying.
In New Hampshire and Massachusetts, they are saying we are going to need more representation.
BRN: How have those numbers for how many representatives in their lower houses…how have those numbers evolved?
WH: I don’t know, but I would like to look back at it and see when they were fixed, how they have changed. Right now, I don’t really know. But you can see that those same cultural ethics still persist.
What does it mean? I don’t know. I have had Master’s students in the past who have sought to do work on these questions, either theses or go on the Ph.D. program. I have encouraged them to look at this, research-wise. I haven’t done it because it is not part of my research program, but I would really love to learn about the consequences of increasing representation.
Almost every statistical model you use makes a basic choice between accuracy and efficiency.
BRN: I think Dr. Elliott – and I am going to paraphrase what I think I understood from him – but I think, basically, he suggested to me that it was a naïve idea because I am not understanding what goes on Capitol Hill in the halls of Congress. The backroom compromises and dealings and such. Now that may be true, but it also begs the question of whether all of that backroom wheeling and dealing is ultimately healthy.
WH: Here’s what I think, based on statistics. I am basically a statistician as well, by trade.
One of the big statistical concepts is that almost every statistical model you use makes a basic choice between two important ingredients. One is accuracy. The other is efficiency.
So accuracy is that your statistical model reveals the truth. But that might mean that you have a hundred variables in your model so it has become uninteresting and un-useful – but accurate!
Another statistical model could be really efficient. It only has three variables, so you might miss some things.
So I suspect that the larger your legislature, the more accurate it is in representing the whole constituent body, but the less efficient it becomes in execution.
That’s the basic payoff and we have to ask ourselves whether we want accuracy or efficiency.
Accuracy is clearly important. You want people’s attitudes on policies insofar as they matter to legislators to be represented accurately. On the other hand, our legislatures already have enough trouble passing laws. If you add more people, is it going to make the whole operation more complicated?
BRN: Well, it would make it much more challenging for the special interest groups to lobby effectively.
WH: Yes! It makes it much harder to get majorities. So you are going to cut into that efficiency, but it is a really interesting idea.
BRN: OK, one more issue and then we will probably have used up your time. And this has to do with local elections. An observation that I made in an editorial about the mid-term elections a few weeks ago…It looks like there were a lot of party-line votes. And it looks like App State students, for example, tend to be more leaning toward the Democrats.
BRN: I don’t know what the numbers are…
WH: I have some numbers I can give you.
We just administered a survey to all entry-level political science students, our general education, intro courses. Right now a majority of them are Democrats and a sizable minority are Republicans. It’s about 55% Democrats, 40% are Republicans and the rest are independents.
There is another side to partisanship.
BRN: So where that becomes significant, especially where they register to vote here, in Watauga County rather than back in their hometowns because this is where they will be living come Election Day, Where it becomes significant is that most of those newly transplanted residents don’t go to the polls really knowing about the local issues and candidates here…
WH: Huh-huh. They party-line vote…
BRN: Yes, so they party-line vote. Well, one of my questions is why are, for example, candidates for County Board of Commissioners or County Sheriff even have to have an identification with a party?
WH: That is a great question. It is one that people have been debating, and the big debates really emerged during this progressive period in the late 1800s and early 1900s where we saw broad-based movements that actually stripped city councilmen of partisanship. The whole Nebraska state legislature has a unicameral structure – just one chamber – and it is all non-partisan.
So there are many people who are concerned that, when you add partisanship to an election, you enable people to vote without studying the issues or studying the people, the candidates. They just go in and blindly vote for a candidate because of his party.
BRN: And in some states, I think even my home state of California, you can just do a straight line ticket. Just make one check mark or hole punch and you vote for either all Republicans or all Democrats.
WH: Yep. You are absolutely right. Adding partisanship does that, but here is the other side of it.
There are a few political scientists who have studied this really in-depth and what they will tell you is if you take that stuff away, the partisanship, the same people are going to vote. But they will just pick the names they like the best.
So partisanship allows people to vote with some degree of confidence….
BRN: Even if they don’t know the candidates or the issues…
WH: Right. Even though these students might not know local issues, they can predict 90% of the time what a Democratic lawmaker will do. They know, for example, that Democrats have more favorable attitudes toward Medicaid, more favorable attitudes toward education spending. They know that Republicans have more favorable attitudes toward defense spending. They know that Republicans are probably going to spend more on fighting ISIS and on criminal justice.
BRN: But when it comes down to a local or county election, those national and international issues are relatively insignificant, aren’t they?
WH: But they aren’t insignificant. That stuff, those attitudes and values, carries down into very real local things, too. If you know that someone is pro-Social Services and you are voting in a local election for Sheriff or City Council, these things still do matter and they are good proxies for how the local official will vote on things related to them. Local spending. Local roads and conditions.
That’s modern politics.
So the argument against what you are suggesting is that partisanship provides information that is a “cue” to (otherwise ill-informed) voters. And that cue is actually fairly accurate.
Even though we are more polarized today, voters are actually more empowered. They know what their lawmakers likely will do if they know what the vote will be on.
So that is the big concern about what the progressives did when they removed partisanship. They just made people participate worse. In many cases, they just drove voter turnout down.
So if you eliminate partisanship, perhaps the App State students might just stop voting. Maybe that is what you want, but probably you want them to vote, but to vote competently. We don’t have a lot of evidence that they are making bad votes, that the people who they vote for, if they are Democrat, that those Democrats in local offices are making choices that the students would disapprove of. In fact, most of the evidence suggests they are making choices on local issues that the students would approve of, they just didn’t know about the issues.
So they are approximating, and that approximation is pretty accurate.
BRN: Yes, well in the recent election you had all pretty similar percentages for each of the three Democratic candidates for County Commissioner: Larry Turnbow, Billy Kennedy, and Charlie Wallin. What I pointed out in my editorial is that knowing that the deck is stacked in favor of the Democratic candidates because of the party line voting and the block of voters represented by App State, the Republican candidates just have to do a better job of grassroots campaigning and making themselves better known.
WH: It depends. Modern campaigning suggests that if you are a Republican you are not going to get a Democrat to vote for you. And, more often than not you are going to make choices that Democrats don’t like. And it is the same on the other side, too. If I were their strategist, I would say to them, “If you really want to get elected and it is 2018 with Donald Trump elected President of the U.S. – and you see what the public surveys say about his approval level, then the best way to get elected is to become a Democrat and perhaps more liberal on policy. OR, run for office in a different place, a different geography where you have more Republicans.
There are just not a ton of people who are flipping votes today. I’m not saying that grassroots campaigning and such doesn’t matter, because it does, but it just doesn’t matter as much as partisanship.
That’s not to say that partisanship is altogether bad. It is just problematic. But it is to say that it is increasingly difficult as the parties have clarified…voters know that the Republican Party is the conservative party and the Democratic Party is the liberal party. As voters know this, it becomes very difficult for conservative Republicans to get liberal Democrats to vote for them. And vice-versa.
BRN: Well that follows in this last election. Ray Russell, a Democrat, won by similar proportions at least in Watauga County in his race against Jonathan Jordan. Sheriff Hagaman may have been a higher percentage.
WH: That’s right. Watauga County was a clean sweep for Democrats
BRN: Including in voting against Virginia Foxx, the incumbent candidate for U.S. Congress.
WH: Yes, but those districts are much bigger than Watauga County. In the vote for 45th North Carolina Senate District, the vote for incumbent Deanna Ballard vs. Wes Luther. I am not speaking poorly of him, but Luther, a student at App State, has no political experience and yet he dominates in Watauga County. And the average Democratic voter might – or even would – be better represented by Wes Luther than Deanna Ballard, who would probably do a better job representing Republican voters. That’s modern politics.
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