Happy New Year Fans and Frenemies

Year-end seems to be the time of atonement for those of us – journalists, pundits, bloggers and blowhards – who inflict our views on others. By calling attention to our failures in the prior year, we seek to erase them and begin anew. The practice is kind of like a medieval religion but you readers provide your indulgences for free.

libertyPell nominates, as its biggest failure of 2012, the belief that Nate Silver, of the New York Times 538 column, was wrong — or at least that he was not as right as he said he was. As is so often the case, I confused what I thought with what I hoped. With the confession out of the way, let’s turn to the Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s.

Here is a link to Silver’s December 27 column http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/27/as-swing-districts-dwindle-can-a-divided-house-stand/#more-37996 that was brought back to my attention by a reader after I had skimmed through it and missed its importance. Thank you. You know who you are and I wish you a happy birthday and a wonderful new year of fatherhood.

According to Silver’s column, Congressional dysfunction, at least in the House, could well be explained in this short paragraph in response to the question “why is compromise so hard in the House?”

“But the answer could be this instead: individual members of Congress are responding fairly rationally to their incentives. Most members of the House now come from hyperpartisan districts where they face essentially no threat of losing their seat to the other party. Instead, primary challenges, especially for Republicans, may be the more serious risk.”

Here is how Silver gets there. The 435 House districts can be grouped by the party most likely to win and the degree of that likelihood. At the ends of the spectrum, New York’s Upper West Side and Cambridge, Massachusetts can be safely placed in the Democratic column while Wyoming and Alaska are reliably Republican. Call these “landslide” districts for their parties then move toward the middle through the “strong” districts, “leaning” districts and finally to “swing” districts.

Each step toward the middle increases the chance of a real race between a Democrat and a Republican in November as well as the likelihood the race will be contested in the middle rather than the extremes.

In contrast, the races in the landslide districts are contested in the primaries, where tiny numbers of voters often choose the more extreme candidate.

Self-preservation – a.k.a. re-election —  determines Congressional behavior at least in the House.

In 1992, there were 123 landslide districts  (28% of the total), but in 2012, there are 242 (56% of the total). More than half of all Congressmen have more to fear from their own party than from their opponents. Though some of the increase in landslide districts comes at the expense of strong and leaning districts, the number of swing districts has plummeted from 103 in 1992 to only 35 in 2012.

Among the causes: neighborhoods are more homogenous because people seem to like to live near others like themselves (no harm there or at least nothing to be done about it); a long-term decrease in ticket splitting (maybe if politics was less nauseating, voters would pay more attention, but that too is a hard problem); and Gerrymandering — the two parties benefit from this more or less rigged outcome and, in most states, they get to make the rules.

That could actually be fixed as we are seeing even in California, the epicenter of governmental dysfunction.

Self regulation has often proved disappointing as Senator Elizabeth Warren would tell us about the securities industry, but no industry is more self regulated than politics. Fixing that is up to us.


No doubt, there are other significant mistakes in 2012. There might even be a success or two. Please tell me what you thought. Post a comment, send me an email, give me a call. Happy 2013.  With thanks, Haven

2 Responses to “Happy New Year Fans and Frenemies”

Bob Higgins, January 01, 2013 at 4:32 pm said:

Dear Liberty Pell,
There is someone in government who is responsible for the misbehavior of political parties. It is the Supreme Court. It is the Court’s failure to act that has us in such a political stalemate. Here is a 2012 quote from former Justice Paul Stephens.

“The government cannot gerrymander for the purpose of helping the majority party; the government should be redistricting for the purpose of creating appropriate legislative districts,” Stevens said in a SCOTUSblog interview.

Hopefully, the current court will awaken to its long avoided responsibility.


Brandy, January 01, 2013 at 7:47 pm said:

What do you suppose Stevens meant by “Appropriate”? CA seems onto something. Maybe start with Counties and divide or augment for head count. Some mathematical formulation.


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