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Polarization Redux

- December 18, 2007

A couple weeks ago, I posted on whether Obama is really a “post-polarization” candidate. This spawned a response from Ezra Klein, a response to Klein by Brendan Nyhan, an op-ed from Klein in the Los Angeles Times (possibly in the works before my post), and a subsequent response from Nyhan. (Got that?)

At this point, maybe only the three of us care about the subject, but nevertheless let me add my final thoughts:

1) My definition of “highly polarized” (following, inter alia, Fiorina and Jacobson): when two or more groups have very different opinions of a person, issue, etc. In my post, I compared Democrats and Republicans, who, as Jacobson shows, are more polarized in their attitudes toward Bush and toward the Iraq War than toward any president or war since public opinion polling began. Klein talks about polarization in terms of the overall percent favorable or unfavorable. That is different, since it doesn’t compare opinions among groups. He also notes that aggregate favorables can change, as they did for Bush or Clinton. That is true. You can see that just by looking at presidential approval over time. But shifts in aggregate opinion may not necessarily change the distance between Democrats and Republicans. Imagine if 70% of Democrats liked President Hillary Clinton, and 30% didn’t. Imagine Republicans are the opposite: 30-70. Her “polarization score,” as discussed in my original post, is 80. Now let’s say her approval goes up 10% in both groups, so Democrats are 80-20 and Republicans are 40-60. Her polarization score is still 80. Perhaps this is just an academic point, but it seems important to clarify what I mean by “polarization.”

2) Klein read my post as suggesting that “polarization” was a quality of persons, not an outcome of a political process. I did not intend that meaning, and was using “polarizing” as an adjective only as a shorthand. So I agree with him when he writes:

bq. Still, it’s a bit misleading to say “she” is more polarizing. Polarization isn’t a character trait; it’s the outcome of a process. And that process is American politics…Fifteen years in the hothouse of national politics will leave you “polarizing” as surely as 15 minutes in a tanning bed will leave you bronzed.

But Nyhan is also right that political leaders can influence this process:

bq. While any politician will of course become more polarizing as they rise in prominence, it doesn’t follow that all of them will converge to some equilibrium level of polarization. The good politicians who endure, survive, and win usually do so by retaining some appeal to independents and moderates in the other party.

That is an argument of both Fiorina and Jacobson. Jacobson describes the well-known strategy of the Bush administration to cobble together a narrow winning margin by appealing to the Republican base, thereby exacerbating polarization. Fiorina writes:

bq. If, by some strange turn of events, Senator John McCain had been the Republican nominee and Senator Joseph Lieberman the Democrat in 2004, would we have seen 90 percent of each party opposing 90 percent of the other? We think not.

You don’t have to believe Fiorina’s specific hypothetical to acknowledge that leaders can affect how partisans of each stripe perceive them, and can work to build larger coalitions that include some members of the other party. (Of course, they will face opposing forces trying to break apart these coalitions — which is part of the political process Klein discusses.)

3) Klein and I agree that Democrats and Republicans are less polarized on the candidates other than Hillary because of her longer tenure in national politics. In my post, I wrote:

bq. However, not even Huckabee [the least “polarizing” candidate] should start proclaiming himself a “uniter not a divider.” The candidates with the lowest polarization score were also the candidates with the highest percentage of respondents who couldn’t rate them. For example, compare Clinton to Huckabee: 4% did not evaluate Clinton, but 49% did not evaluate Huckabee. This suggests that as the campaign goes on and voters become more familiar with all of the candidates, the polarizing impact of even the lesser-knowns will increase.

Klein writes:

bq. The first is that it’s probably a mistake to compare Hillary Clinton with the other presidential hopefuls. Her many years as one of the most recognizable players in national politics leave her more comparable to a president running for reelection than a newcomer scrapping for a shot at the crown. As pollster Scott Rasmussen tells me, all the other candidates are going to see their negatives go up during the course of the campaign — and if one of them ultimately wins the race, their negatives will go up even further. “The next president will get to where she is no matter who we elect,” he said. It’s not that the others are necessarily less polarizing than Clinton. It’s that they’re not as polarizing yet.

4) Klein and Nyhan seem to differ on the electoral implications of the polarization on Hillary.

bq. [Klein:] After all, she starts with a high base of support (more registered voters say they will “definitely” support her in a general election than any other candidate, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll from November), and let’s face it, there’s really nothing left to throw at her. As her pollster, Mark Penn, said, “All her negatives are out.” She’s survived the process, is broadly known by voters and still wins most polled matchups against potential Republican challengers. So maybe she’s the safest bet.

bq. [Nyhan:] Surely it’s harder to win a general election when your opponents start out energized against you and almost half the electorate starts out with an unfavorable impression of you. Why would we think otherwise?

I suspect, however, that neither of them is making a prognostication that Hillary Clinton will or will not win. I think she can win, but it will likely be a narrow victory for her or any other Democratic nominee. (My original post was not meant to imply that she could not win. I was addressing a different argument about Obama.)

I’ll make a broader point. A high degree of polarization surrounding a candidate may not prevent him or her from winning office, but it does have implications about how they can or must govern. This is especially true for Clinton (or any Democrat), given that the Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress are unlikely to grow too much larger after 2008. Party-line votes won’t get a Democratic agenda very far, especially in the Senate.

Polarization is a hot topic in political science right now, and The Monkey Cage will have more to say on the subject in the coming months.